Get Paid Watching The Grass Grow: Carbon Sequestration, Texas-Style

A planner working on flood control in Houston believes he has come upon a way—that conservatives will love—to remove a billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Jim Blackburn sees carbon in the soil as a private-property right that landowners should be compensated for, considering the service they are providing to the ecosystem by storing it there.
"We think we can set up a system that every red state in the nation would accept in a heartbeat," said Blackburn, an environmental lawyer and planner widely quoted for his work on Houston's flooding. "Whether we can get it accepted in California, well, that’s a different question."
Researchers have shown that ranchers can efficiently store atmospheric carbon in the soil by using a grazing technique that emulates the behavior of buffalo on the prairie. By moving cattle through a series of paddocks that are given a longer recovery time than continuous grazing allows, ranchers can sequester several tons of carbon dioxide per acre per year, Blackburn said.
The federal government has estimated that atmospheric carbon pollution has a social cost of about $40 per ton. That's the dollar amount of damage a ton of carbon dioxide emissions causes to agricultural productivity, human health, property from increased flood risk, and increased costs for heating and air conditioning.
If ranchers were compensated at the level of the social cost of carbon, or close to it, Blackburn said, "the ecosystem services that are provided by nature might in fact generate a lot of income for these landowners."
The average ranch in Texas is 523 acres in size, according to Texas A&M University. Blackburn believes ranchers can count on $140 per acre per year from carbon sequestration, if he succeeds in developing an exchange to distribute the money. For the average ranch, that would mean an annual income of $73,220, just from letting the grass grow.
"If you grow carbon in your soil, it’s a property right," Blackburn said. "You own the carbon you grow. And if you measure it and you prove that you’ve added it to the inventory, we believe that you can sell it."
It's not a new idea, although it may be new to Texas. They've been doing something similar in Canada.
The economist Kenneth B. Medlock III, director of the James A. Baker III Institute's Center for Energy Studies, believes the idea has merit in the United States.
“Really what it boils down to, which is a very Texas way of thinking: making ecosystem services a monetizable property right," Medlock said. "I think it’s something that should be on the table and should be discussed."
Blackburn struck on the idea while trying to preserve ranch land around sprawling Houston.
"It started as a flood-control solution," he said, "trying to figure out how to keep our ranches to let them be flooded during a hurricane surge and keep them from being broken up and ultimately developed. If we don’t develop in the low-lying coastal areas we won’t have flooding."
Storing water is another ecosystem service Blackburn believes landowners could be compensated for. It would give them a financial incentive to preserve their open land, which would counter the development trends that have exacerbated flooding in Houston. Blackburn set up the Texas Coastal Exchange to create these landowner incentives.
When it comes to carbon sequestration, Blackburn's challenge is creating an exchange that will move money from people who have an interest in sequestering carbon—oil and gas companies, theoretically—to those who have land where carbon can be stored.
"We have been trying to figure out how to set up a system to basically incentivize the oil and gas industry—or to convince the oil and gas industry—to pay for the carbon," Blackburn said.
A carbon tax could simplify that problem, Medlock said, especially if it were implemented with this kind of exchange in mind.
"When you’re writing tax policy you can actually put in methods to avoid tax payments. One such method might be the use of this type of exchange."
Polluters could pay the $40 equivalent of a carbon tax for each ton of emissions to ranchers who would reabsorb that ton and sequester it in the soil. Ranchers would be selling carbon they've collected, polluters would be buying it with the intent of leaving it in the soil.
"We’re figuring there’s probably a billion tons of carbon dioxide that can be stored in the nation’s soils," Blackburn said.

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