(An earlier version of this post included incorrect information about Maryland Gas & Electric, its pricing and whether it offers a "green" gas plan involving carbon offsets. The Sun regrets the errors.)
What is a carbon offset?
A carbon offset is when you pay for greenhouse gas reductions elsewhere equal to the amount of those gases you're generating from a particular activity or purchase.
Greenhouse gases (chiefly carbon dioxide and methane) are the byproducts of burning fossil fuels. Here in Maryland, 39 percent of the greenhouse gases we generate come from making electricity, 33 percent from transportation, 16 percent from heating homes and businesses and 2 percent from disposing of trash. The remainder is produced directly by industry and agriculture.
Offsets come in two flavors: projects that reduce greenhouse gases, such as planting trees, or projects that generate emission-free energy, such as solar or wind.
Why buy an offset?
Carbon offsets are one piece of a two-piece puzzle. The first step is to reduce your carbon footprint to a minimum – say, by driving fuel-efficient cars, making airtight homes, using Energy Star appliances, or by driving less, to name some options. Then, you offset, or cancel out, the unavoidable emissions from driving, riding and flying and from heating, cooling and lighting your home.
Scientists have determined that the buildup of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere has increased global average temperatures 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880. According to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the hottest ten years all occurred in the past twelve years. It's getting hotter faster.
All this consumer choice means that greener products exist for the electricity needed to cool your home (nicely explained by B'More Green) and now two options are available to offset the natural gas used to heat your home. Under these plans, you can buy carbon offsets that cancel out the greenhouse gases generated by your natural gas usage.
Unlike green electricity prices, where rates can be lower than fossil-fuel generated electricity, you'll pay a premium for switching to "green natural gas". At today's rates, switching to a natural gas supplier with carbon offsets would cost the average Marylander anywhere from $20 to $100* annually, a small cost to cancel out nearly one-quarter of your greenhouse gas emissions.
Option #1: CleanSteps® Carbon Offsets - Washington Gas Energy Services
This product is available to BGE and Washington Gas customers. If you switch your natural gas to CleanSteps® Carbon Offsets you'll lock in a fixed rate for one or two years. Read the fine print, as there is an early termination fee for leaving before your contract expires.
"We're excited to offer a unique eco-product that fills a need for natural gas customers to conveniently buy local carbon offset projects that reduce greenhouse gases where our customers live," according to WGES President Harry Warren.
Chesapeake Carbon Fund: Through a partnership with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, 10,000 trees have been planted within the watershed. "This fund is an innovative way to get private funds for projects and we're pleased how well it's worked and plan to replicate the concept," according to Dr. Beth McGee, CBF's Senior Scientist.
J.B. Hunt Intermodal Transportation Project: This project, run by J. B. Hunt, diverts 18 wheeler cargo trailers off DC roads and onto trains; trains emit 50 percent less greenhouse gases than diesel trucks.
Landfill Methane Capture and Destruction: WGES invests in this Worcester County carbon offset project that captures potent methane generated from the Newark, Maryland landfill. Once captured, the methane is burned off in an enclosed flare system instead of being released into our local atmosphere.
Is "green natural gas" pricey?
Though choosing carbon offsets to cancel out your natural gas emissions may cost a bit more, here's something to consider -- natural gas prices have plummeted recently, so you're likely to pay less overall for heating your home even if you do pay a little more for a plan with a carbon offset.
(The drop in prices stems from a boom in natural gas production using hydraulic fracturing, a drilling technique in which water, sand and chemicals are injected into shale deposits deep underground to free up gas trapped there. "Fracking," as it's commonly called, has generated controversy over whether it's contaminating drinking-water wells or contributing to climate change. The gas industry maintains fracking poses no health or environmental threats; state and federal regulators continue to examine the issues. Questions about fracking aside, natural gas is a more climate-friendly fuel for heating your home than electricity, generating only about half as much carbon dioxide as burning coal.)
Here's a rundown of the green gas plans available to BGE and Washington Gas customers, compared with the conventional rate available in each service area:
"Green" vs. Conventional Rate Comparisons as of 5/8/13
BGE price/therm $0.67 $0.67
CleanSteps® Carbon Offsets $0.69 $0.70
Washington Gas price/therm $0.70 $0.70
CleanSteps® Carbon Offsets $0.73 $0.74
Carbon Offset controversy
Some argue that carbon offsets just give people an excuse for business-as-usual in regards to greenhouse emissions. Others have questioned the legitimacy of the carbon offset projects and if the projects were already being developed regardless of the carbon offset investments.
Hearing this criticism, in the last few years, most carbon offset programs garner third party certifications. The main groups that vet carbon offsets (Verified Carbon Standard, Gold Standard, Green-e.org, American Carbon Registry) are non-profits that visit, analyze and verify that the carbon offset project are real, working, additional and meeting their goals. Both products, CleanSteps® Carbon Offsets and Green Plus, are certified by independent groups.
Green effort is Green effort
Both green electricity and green natural gas can make a dent in your carbon footprint and they are convenient - switch and you're done. Of course, you can also buy offsets on your own for any climate-changing activity, including travel, through independent groups like Terra Pass, Sterling Planet or Carbon Fund.
Anyway you look at it, green effort is green effort. And it seems we need more of that when it comes to reducing our collective pollution.
* For the number crunchers: Estimating energy savings can be tricky; prices change, weather changes and home's usage rates vary. But, it's worth figuring a saving's range when you're comparing energy prices. According to BGE, homes use 625 therms/year (median home usage and weatherized) and the Energy Information Administration reports the average MD home uses 1,000 therms/year. The price premium for buying the CleanSteps® Carbon Offsets from WGES ranged from $0.03 to $0.10 per month the past year. Using this data, the extra cost for choosing natural gas with offsets is "guestimated" between $20 and $100. Find your home's natural gas usage online at www.bge.com.