Carbon offsets

Rancher Dallas May (L) and Billy Gascoigne of Ducks Unlimited on the May Ranch in Prowers County, Colo. (Courtesy photo)

Air travel is a tricky one for anyone who visits, lives or works in Telluride. On one hand, it’s difficult to go very far from the box canyon without taking to the friendly skies. On the other hand, planes use a lot of fuel, fuel generates carbon and carbon drives climate change.

“Air travel is carbon intensive, let’s put it that way, and there is no alternative,” said Dr. Adam Chambers, a local climate scientist and Pinhead Institute volunteer. “More and more people are flying so there is more and more jet fuel being burned and those carbon emissions stay in the atmosphere ... For now, carbon offsets are the only solution.”

Enter the Pinhead Climate Institute (PCI). An offshoot of the Pinhead Institute, PCI is the brainchild of Chambers, Pinhead Executive Director Sarah Holbrooke and Chris Arndt, author and board member of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and was initiated after the Telluride Foundation launched the competition for the first Innovation Prize in 2016.

“The innovation prize was to go to an organization that had come up with an idea to improve the lives of the people who live in and visit Telluride,” Holbrooke said. “We had the idea that we wanted to create a Colorado-based carbon offset program.”

The Foundation liked the idea and Pinhead won the grant. The trio then set to work on a program that enabled the purchase of carbon offsets.

“Adam, because he’s been working in this field for so long, is constantly looking for ways to mitigate carbon and methane,” Holbrooke said. “He knew of a ranch in southern Colorado, so he worked with the rancher through Pinhead Climate Institute … We have invested in that farm and now we have offsets that we can sell.”

For his part, Chambers emphasized that it was important to understand that the ranch — the 16,000-acre May Ranch in Prowers County, of which 14,000 acres are involved in the program — would remain “productive agricultural lands.”

“We don’t take land out of production, because setting aside land doesn’t reduce emissions,” he said. “Somebody else is just going to produce agricultural products on another piece of land. This is a working land project where they agreed to farm carbon in addition to grass-fed beef and maintaining wildlife habitat. What they are doing is that their land was in threat of tillage, it was threatened by row crops. When you till the ground, you release large amounts of carbon that is stored in the soil. They agreed in perpetuity to never till this land.”

Chambers added that there are a number of co-benefits. “It benefits wildlife, it benefits the grazing animals, it benefits the water quality, it benefits the worms and it benefits the Arkansas River.

“The key here is that it has huge conservation benefits, in addition to the great atmospheric benefits.”

This brings us back to what air travellers can do to benefit the atmosphere by offsetting the carbon emitted by their flight.

Buy a carbon offset, Chambers said, and “you are paying the rancher to manage for carbon, so the rancher is actually doing proactive things. They are not overstocking cattle. They have a grazing management plan. They are following stewardship ethics that manage for the carbon they have and then they committed in the deed to never releasing that carbon into the atmosphere.”

The cost of offsetting a flight via the PCI’s web site is surprisingly low. Using a carbon calculator, this reporter was able to calculate that flying economy class from Montrose Regional Airport to Newark International Airport in New Jersey via Denver, for instance, uses about 0.86 of a metric ton of carbon roundtrip. The offset for a metric ton of carbon can be purchased on the PCI web site for $15.

That cost might be lower through other programs, but Holbrooke stressed the regional aspect of the program, pointing out, for example, that air travellers can buy offsets through their airline, but those offsets typically benefit large-scale operations in far flung locations.

“Those projects definitely aren’t in Colorado,” she said.

The PCI carbon offset program isn’t restricted to air travel.

“The Galloping Goose runs on fossil fuels,” Chambers pointed out. “We have an asset that would be stranded if we just took it out of commission and there’s not an electric replacement that really works for it, and electric isn’t 100 percent clean because it’s coal powered here. So, we committed to offset for the Galloping Goose.”

Holbrooke added that, for the past two years, PCI has been selling offsets to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. This year, Blues and Brews will offer the PCI offsets on its web site for festival attendees who want to offset their carbon footprint during their time at the festival, or long-term.

“It’s very cool,” she said.

For more, visit pinheadinstitute.org/pinhead-climate-institute. To purchase offsets through PCI, go to https://www.pinheadinstitute.org/pinhead-climate-institute/purchase-offsets-2.