Starting in 2008, The Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts (OACD, okconservation.org) entered into a first of its kind partnership with Western Farmers Electric Cooperative (WFEC) and The Oklahoma Conservation Commission (OCC) to develop and implement a carbon sequestration program that would benefit the farmers and ranchers of Oklahoma while providing an unparalleled level of certainty to our buyers. Because of a law passed more than 7 years before the launch of this project, the OCC had been given the statutory authority to verify "carbon credits" and practices resulting in carbon sequestration. With the possibility of a climate change bill being passed after the election in 2008, no matter the outcome, WFEC was looking to further build their renewable portfolio and the OCC along with OACD approached WFEC with the idea of a pilot project. WFEC would make the initial investment to pay for the credits, OACD would serve as the outreach and aggregation facilitator and OCC would embark on building their verification program.
But in a state where topics like "carbon credits" and "cap and trade" were not only foreign but controversial, it was the group's focus to keep things local. Each of these three groups were locally led to their core. If WFEC was going to have to purchase credits to offset any emissions, they wanted to purchase as many credits as possible from the members of their own local electric cooperatives. And if the OCC was going to verify these practices generating the credits, then they were going to do so with the help and expertise of local conservation district employees and conservation commission employees alongside their federal partners at the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). And if this little program in Oklahoma was going to make any kind of an impression then we had to offer something that no other market at that time was offering. That's why we decided to make the commitment that every single contract that we signed would be verified every year by local folks that those farmers knew. In addition, WFEC made a large investment with Oklahoma State University's Soil Sciences department to determine actual sequestration rates based not on county-by-county boundaries, but on soil types and management practices to help bolster the program and its legitimacy.
So we embarked on a project that had many of our own members scratching their heads. By the end of the enrollment period, however, we had over 50,000 acres under contract. Not only that, but the one county that has more acres than any other in the project is arguably the most politically conservative county in Oklahoma. To put that statement in perspective, this county with all these acres under contract was the only county in Oklahoma that Franklin D. Roosevelt did not win in 1936. In addition, the verification program that has been so meticulously built by the OCC and the participating conservation districts in Oklahoma has been recognized in international publications alongside some of the most commonly used carbon markets across the globe. That reception led us to build the ECOpass program.
Current Program Vision
While each of the partners continued work on our pilot project, we started the current phase of our program with the question: how do you "brand" the idea of carbon credits in a place like Oklahoma?
In conservation, we often joke that we're too "Green" for the "Ag" groups and too "Ag" for the "Green" groups. But that position brought us to the point where we needed to start building bridges. We wanted to bridge the divide between rural Oklahomans who are engaged in agriculture and those who are a generation or more removed from the farm. We wanted to build a bridge between urban environmentalists and those who were directly impacting the environment on a grand scale every day. And we even went so far as to want to build a bridge between those who work to fight the changing climate and those who deny that humans have any affect on the climate and its changes whatsoever. Unfortunately, these gaps seem to get wider every day.
That's how we came up with the ECOpass program. In Oklahoma, the heart of the Dust Bowl, a state ravaged by the worst man-made ecological disaster of modern times, a disaster that led to the creation of the modern locally led conservation movement, we created a totally voluntary program that rewards producers who are being good stewards of the land and actively sequestering carbon by bringing them additional financial incentives. Those incentives are provided by every day Oklahomans (or those traveling to Oklahoma) who purchase anywhere from one to twenty "acres of conservation" in this great State. We built the bridge of understanding not by using scare tactics but by showing the residents in urban and suburban areas the impact that agriculture producers have on their every day life. How the farming practices used upstream affect their water quality downstream.
Through OACD and the ECOpass program we provide tours for groups or individuals who want to better understand today's agricultural system and farming practices. ECOpass is not just an intangible investment in a metric ton of carbon that you can never see, hold, smell, or touch. It is not a gimmick for those who don't believe that there isn't a carbon problem. It is a way to invest in your neighbor who is working every day to feed and clothe the world and doing it while protecting wildlife habitat, improving air and water quality, and going outside their realm of "the way we've always done it" to rebuild the health of the soil that has been stripped of organic matter through decades of hard farming. ECOpass is a way to invest in Oklahomans who are changing their ways in order to clean up and protect your water and protect the soil that each one of us depends on for our very lives.
At OACD, we see the ECOpass as a program that started with the seed of a "carbon credit" but then grew into a crop of knowledge that ties those "city folks" back to farmers who have committed to better management practices to help protect the environment while increasing soil productivity. When it comes to solving the environmental challenges we face while still trying to feed the world, we all have to put something in to get something out. But for a small investment, the harvest that we are reaping is well worth the little that it took to sow the crop.