SACRAMENTO — The state's largest timber company Wednesday announced a groundbreaking agreement to begin marketing its vast forests as a weapon in the fight against global warming.
Sierra Pacific Industries' announcement comes less than a week after the administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pushed through new rules that allow the firm to sell its trees' ability to absorb harmful carbon dioxide from the air.
Environmental groups immediately raised questions about the timing, so soon after the administration pressed the California Air Resources Board to approve the new protocols. "There obviously was a backroom deal going on that helped drive approval of those protocols," said Brian Nowicki of the Center for Biological Diversity.
Promoters of Sierra Pacific's new pact said such criticisms miss the mark and that the new effort is blazing a trail in the battle against global warming.
"This deal is really marking the way not just for California, but for the global carbon market," said Eron Bloomgarden of Equator, a private equity fund for natural resource projects that will work with Sierra Pacific to find buyers for its carbon credits.
Schwarzenegger, who on Wednesday launched a three-day climate summit in Los Angeles, had originally planned to announce the agreement at an evening news conference but canceled it at the last minute and released a short statement heralding the deal.
"This agreement and the partnerships formed at this summit will help people around the world reduce the 20% of global warming emissions that come from deforestation," the governor said.
Sierra Pacific will, over the next five years, manage 60,000 acres of its forests to boost the amount of carbon dioxide the trees absorb by 1.5 million tons. The company will offer this "offset" for sale to smokestack industries to help compensate for their polluting emissions.
The offsets could be worth $10 million or more at current prices.
The first project involves a plan to permanently declare 20,000 young conifers -- giant sequoias ranging from seedlings to trees 30 years old -- off limits to logging forever.
"They would have been harvested over time -- now they won't," declared Mark Pawlicki of Sierra Pacific.
Other changes could include slowing the harvest of trees or clearing brush and other debris, providing more light and space for trees. That can speed the growth of conifers, increasing their absorption of gases that trap heat.
Pawlicki said the air board's new rules provide abundant reviews by regulators to ensure that forests are absorbing more carbon than they otherwise would be.
Opponents of Sierra Pacific's logging practices say the agreement so far seems to simply promise a big payday to the firm for managing its forest much as it would have anyway. Preserving the sequoias would not increase carbon absorption in the short term, they said.
They also questioned efforts by administration officials to press for approval of the new forest protocols in time for the governor's summit on climate change.
"The deal . . . smacks of insider trading by the Schwarzenegger administration," said Jeff Shellito, an environmental consultant and former legislative staffer on natural resource issues.
Dan Pellissier, Schwarzenegger's deputy Cabinet secretary for energy and the environment, said such arguments are "specious," the product of longtime foes who had hoped to stop Sierra Pacific's practice of clear-cutting.
Opposition to clear-cutting "is like a religion to some folks," he said. "There is no amount of science that will undercut their beliefs."