The Bulletin

Senate panel backs bill exempting carbon agreements from Freedom of Information Act

By: - January 21, 2021 12:01 am

A forest in the Wetlands of James River Park in Richmond. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

A Senate committee threw its support Wednesday behind a bill that would exempt proprietary information in carbon sequestration agreements with a public body from Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act. 

Senate Bill 1343, sponsored by Jill Vogel, R-Fauquier, aims to incentivize owners of forestland in Virginia to keep those lands forested as a way to both offset carbon emissions linked to climate change and improve water quality. 

“Virginia forests offset almost 20 percent of our (carbon dioxide) emissions,” Vogel told the Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology, citing a statistic from the Virginia Department of Forestry. “So the goal is to protect our forests, and this sequestration agreement that you can enter into is one way to do it. And we’re trying to incentivize more people to do it.” 

The use of forests as “carbon sinks” that can offset carbon emissions elsewhere has become a popular tool for businesses seeking to lessen their environmental footprint

Under a forest carbon sequestration agreement, a business buys carbon credits linked to specific forested lands. The owner of those lands gets revenue from the credits, while the business gets to count the carbon the trees sequester against its emissions and, ideally, meet environmental targets attractive to investors increasingly concerned with the effects of climate change. 

Reducing carbon emissions isn’t the only reason policymakers are interested in keeping lands forested, however. Forestland is beneficial for water quality, with the conservation of 695,000 acres by 2025 listed as one of the goals of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement

But while counties like Fauquier are interested in carbon sequestration as a new revenue stream, county legislative liaison Eldon James said high barriers to access markets have led the county to hire a private broker to aggregate interested landowners and facilitate agreements between them and private investors. 

To do so, he told legislators Wednesday, “their trade secrets have to be protected. Unfortunately, the lack of business protection has really stalled the effort in Fauquier.” 

Vogel’s bill aims to provide that protection by exempting proprietary information in carbon sequestration agreements involving public bodies from the mandatory disclosure provisions of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. Lawmakers on the Senate General Laws Committee voted 14-0 with one abstention to forward it onto the full chamber for consideration. 

Similar legislation was passed during the 2017 session exempting proprietary information in solar services agreements involving public bodies from FOIA disclosure requirements.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is the Mercury's environment and energy reporter, covering everything from utility regulation to sea level rise. Originally from McLean, she has spent over a decade in journalism and academic publishing. She previously worked as a staff reporter for Chesapeake Bay Journal, the Progress-Index and the Caroline Progress, and her work has been twice honored by the Virginia Press Association as "Best in Show" for online writing. She was chosen for the 2020 cohort of the Columbia Energy Journalism Institute and is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]