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Carbon offsets bring new investment to Appalachia’s coal fields, but most Appalachians aren’t benefiting

Gabe Schwartzman, University of Tennessee, The Conversation on

Published in Science & Technology News

Central Appalachia is home to the third-largest concentration of forest carbon offsets traded on the California carbon market. But while these projects bring new investments to Appalachia, most people in Appalachia are not benefiting.

The effect of this new economic activity is evident in the Clearfork Valley, a forested region of steep hills and meandering creeks on the Kentucky-Tennessee border.

Rural communities here once relied on coal mining jobs. As the mines shut down, with the last closing in 2022, the valley was left with thousands of acres of forests and strip-mined land but fewer ways to make a good living.

Today, corporate landowners and investment funds have placed most of that forest land into carbon offset projects – valuing the trees for their ability to absorb carbon dioxide emissions to help protect the climate.

These carbon offsets projects can be lucrative for the landowner, with proceeds that can run into the millions of dollars. Companies subject to California’s carbon emissions rules are willing to pay projects like these to essentially cancel out, or offset, the companies’ carbon emissions. However, my research shows that few local residents are benefiting.

The projects are part of a wider and growing trend of investor-owners of rural land making money but providing little local employment, local investment or community involvement in return.

 

The rise of carbon forest offset projects in Appalachia has coincided with the historic decline of the coal economy.

Central Appalachia lost 70% of its coal jobs from 2011 to 2023 as its coal production fell by 75% in that same period. As corporate landowners looked for new revenue streams, they found a burgeoning forest carbon offset market after California instituted a forest carbon offset protocol in 2011.

Much of the Clearfork Valley was originally owned by the American Association, a British coal corporation that accumulated the land in the 1880s. That property passed between other coal companies before NatureVest, a climate change-driven investment firm owned by The Nature Conservancy, created an investment fund to purchase the land in 2019.

The previous owner, a forestland investment company, had established carbon offsets on that land in 2015, making a 125-year commitment to retain or grow the forest carbon stock. When NatureVest purchased the land in 2019, it generated at least US$20 million in proceeds from the sale of additional offsets. The details of such transactions are typically private, but offset sales can be structured in a number of ways. They might be one-time payments for existing credits, for example, or futures contracts for the potential of additional credits.

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