In ‘sleeper’ environmental bill, Virginia lawmakers eye carbon sequestration possibilities

By: - February 18, 2021 1:44 pm

An agricultural field in King William County in April 2020. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

After putting in motion efforts to reduce emissions from the power and transportation sectors as a way to slow climate change, Virginia lawmakers are looking to chip away at the carbon problem by examining ways it can be sequestered in forests, waters and soils.

“Once we get rid of all our carbon-producing vehicles and plants and houses and what have you, we’re still stuck with a lot of carbon in the air that isn’t going anywhere until you sequester it. And that is critical,” said Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax, during a committee hearing this month. “We have to realize that we can win the battle and lose the war if we don’t really hit this mitigation or sequestration of carbon issue pretty hard.” 

Both legislative chambers have signed off this session on a bill from Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, that would convene environmental, agricultural and higher education groups for a state task force charged with examining ways to encourage and quantify carbon sequestration in Virginia. A report would be due to the General Assembly prior to the first day of the 2022 regular session. 

We’re doing a lot with carbon emissions, as rightfully we should, but there’s existing carbon that we can probably do a better job of finding out how to capture,” said Lewis.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature is still needed for the bill to become law. Spokesperson Alena Yarmosky said the administration does not have a stance on the legislation. 

“I really think this is one of the sleeper bills this session,” said Jay Ford, a policy advisor with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which was closely involved in the bill’s development. “It really is just the missing piece of the puzzle for Virginia’s climate work.” 

Carbon sequestration has grown in popularity in the U.S. in recent years as policymakers, driven by rising public concern, have increasingly begun to grapple with climate change. 

Forests have been one of the easiest sequestration solutions. Because trees absorb and store carbon dioxide, they have long been recognized as a powerful tool for removing excess carbon from the atmosphere. 

But other natural features can also sequester the greenhouse gas. Submerged aquatic vegetation like eelgrass and salt marshes are capable of absorbing more carbon dioxide per acre than forests. Soils, particularly on agricultural land, also hold promise, although exactly how much carbon they can store and how effectively continue to be debated

The possibilities, and varying attitudes toward climate change, have led to a patchwork of efforts across Virginia. The Nature Conservancy runs a half-dozen forest carbon sequestration projects in Southwest Virginia, selling the credits in both voluntary markets that businesses can join to meet corporate sustainability goals and in California’s mandatory market. The University of Virginia has developed a framework for quantifying the carbon sequestration potential of salt marshes and tidal wetlands; in 2020, another Lewis bill empowered the state Department of Environmental Quality to participate in carbon markets using credits linked to underwater grasses. And individual farmers as well as soil and water conservation districts have begun exploring the potential their soils hold. 

“There’s really no national and state strategy,” said Kyle Shreve, executive director of the Virginia Agribusiness Council. “Everybody’s sort of involved in it but they’re doing these things at different levels.” 

Virginia wouldn’t be the first to examine statewide sequestration solutions. Oregon has done extensive work in evaluating carbon sequestration not only in agricultural soils but in forests and on other lands. Legislation under consideration in California would require the state to set sequestration goals and establish a special registry for such projects. 

These explorations may take on new urgency as federal efforts intensify. Soil sequestration has become a key part of President Joseph Biden’s climate plan: one part of his Jan. 27 Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis At Home and Abroad says “America’s farmers, ranchers and forest landowners have an important role to play in combating the climate crisis and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, by sequestering carbon in soils, grasses, trees and other vegetation.” 

While the federal government’s prioritization of soil carbon sequestration may be new, its interest in the practice as an emerging way to combat climate change is not. For more than a decade, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has been studying the potential of soils to store carbon and identifying best practices for doing so, including no-till management, forest buffer planting and alley cropping. In 2005, the agency, working with Colorado State University, launched its first version of the COMET tool, which calculated how much carbon soils could capture. The tool has continued to be refined: today, any farmer or landowner can enter their location and conservation practices into the COMET-Planner to get a general estimate of how much carbon they are capable of sequestering.

In Virginia, many of these management practices dovetail with those already in widespread use to protect water quality in the Chesapeake Bay watershed under the Bay Watershed Agreement, said several agricultural and environmental experts.  

Most farmers “certainly understand the principles (of sequestration) because they care about the soil health,” said Anne Coates, district manager for the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District, which encompasses Albemarle, Fluvanna, Louisa and Nelson counties as well as the city of Charlottesville. “Any farmer that cares about their soils, this is not going to be a difficult concept in any way.” 

Scaling up solutions to encourage sequestration practices will prove more tricky, however. While organizations like the Nature Conservancy can employ experts well versed in the complex scientific work of quantifying carbon and participating in carbon markets, “for the average landowner, that’s not easy to do,” said Nikki Rovner, TNC’s associate Virginia director. 

Technical assistance, like that the state provides for agricultural practices related to Chesapeake Bay water quality, is one possible pathway. Another is encouraging or incentivizing participation in carbon markets or other mechanisms like the “carbon bank” being explored by the Biden administration to buy credits from farmers who implement sequestration practices on their land. Market solutions, though, continue to be controversial, with some critics claiming estimates of sequestration’s efficacy are overblown and that reliance on it can actually slow down carbon reductions in other sectors like transportation as emitters use offsets and credits to delay more meaningful (and costly) change. 

Nor do all practices work equally well everywhere. “Different forms of agriculture are practiced in the (Shenandoah) Valley compared to the (Eastern) Shore,” said Shreve. “Some of those techniques are going to vary depending on what kind of agriculture you’re practicing.”

Consequently, agricultural interests say program design will need to be carefully crafted to ensure sequestration is both affordable and accessible. “We could have the best of intentions, but every once in a while the little guy can get hurt,” said Del. Michael Webert, R-Fauquier, who is also a farmer and supported the task force. 

Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, said working out best practices was one of the aims of the legislation. 

“It’s about finding and recommending short- and long-term benchmarks for increasing carbon sequestration,” he said. “But I think the idea at the end of the day is to find what works best for all of the commonwealth.”

This story has been corrected to update Ford’s title. He is now the Bay Foundation’s Virginia Policy and Grassroots Advisor. 

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.