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Car dealer offers carbon offsets

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Don Beyer yesterday offered to help pay for a carbon-offset program for customers of his four Northern Virginia Volvo dealerships.

The former Virginia lieutenant governor said his dealerships would spend $70 to purchase a year of carbon offsets for each of the next 400 customers who buy a new vehicle from him.

Carbon offsets are charitable donations to nonprofit groups that promise to use the money to benefit the environment by promoting nonpolluting energy sources, such as wind or solar power.

"The bottom line is that we each have a role to play, and carbon offsets will be part of the eventual comprehensive solution," Mr. Beyer said.

Under the program announced yesterday, each pound of carbon-based greenhouse pollutants produced by the next 400 customers of Don Beyer Volvo in their first year of new-car ownership is supposed to be offset by an equal amount of carbon-free energy. Customers can purchase more offsets on their own.

Don Beyer Volvo appears to be the first Washington-area auto dealership to offer carbon offsets.

"We'd love the other 23,000 car dealers in the U.S. to imitate this," Mr. Beyer said.

Mr. Beyer expects to spend $28,000 to purchase the offsets from the Rockville environmental group Clean Currents. The group's president said he would invest the money primarily in wind-energy projects.

The Don Beyer program won praise from local government officials as an example of good corporate citizenship.

Government is limited in its authority to force consumers to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, said David F. Snyder, a Falls Church City Council member. Private-sector efforts are needed as the region's greenhouse-gas emissions grow, he said.

"This will not be easy for the Washington metro area," Mr. Snyder said.

As Mr. Beyer announced his program, the Federal Trade Commission was holding a conference at its downtown office to take a closer look at carbon offsets and similar environmental efforts.

Academics and leaders of nonprofit groups who spoke at the conference said carbon offsets could reduce greenhouse-gas emissions with widespread use but that the money is not always spent effectively.

"That's the key challenge with offset programs," said Carolyn Fischer, a fellow with the Washington environmental policy group Resources for the Future.

"Consumers are being offered this broad array of products," but they don't always know what they're buying, Ms. Fischer said.

The FTC wants to make sure contributors get value for their money.

"If we see deceptive practices in the marketplace, we have authority to bring law enforcement action," said Hampton Newsome, an FTC attorney.

So far, no enforcement action has been taken against carbon-offset organizations, but "these are relatively new products," Mr. Newsome said. "We're trying to stay on top of things."

Carbon offsets gained recognition when the international conference that produced the 1997 Kyoto Protocol sanctioned them as a way for governments and private companies to earn emission credits that could be traded in the marketplace.

In addition to investments in solar and wind energy, carbon offsets can be used to plant trees, conserve soil, generate hydroelectric power and fund low-emission fuel programs.

A voluntary program began in the U.S. in 2003, when a group of large corporations agreed to participate in the Chicago Climate Exchange system for buying and selling carbon offsets.

Major corporate participants included Ford Motor Co., E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co. and Motorola Inc.

Local organizations that buy or sell carbon offsets include Amtrak, Discovery Communications and the National Aquarium.

Amtrak introduced a program last month that gives passengers an opportunity to offset carbon emissions created by their train travel.

Passengers can log on to the Web site for the environmental group Carbonfund.org to choose options for contributing. The starting price for offsets is $3, which Amtrak says can offset 2,500 miles of rail travel.

The average donation is closer to $10, Amtrak officials said.