Part two: Prairie pothole or jackpot hole?

If a farmer decides to stop farming his prairie pothole wetlands, this is how he would collect on them. Bob stops farming his pothole land, thus leveraging them as a “greenhouse gas crop.” Because there’s strength in numbers, farmer Bob joins a cooperative of farmers who have made a similar decision about their pothole wetlands.

Among them, let’s say they have 10,000 acres of pothole wetlands. The farmers market their carbon on the Chicago Climate Exchange. From the Exchange, they receive vouchers for “carbon credits” which are publicly traded like other commodities. Because each acre of potholes stores one ton of carbon, the cooperative receives 10,000 credits.

Bob’s acreage is 100, so he receives 100 credits. Assuming there are mandatory limits to pollution that contributes to global warming, an energy company buys 500 tons—500 credits—from the exchange broker representing Bob and his fellow cooperative farmers.

If the spot market is $20 a ton, the energy company receives $10,000. In return, the company is allowed to pump 500 additional tons of carbon dioxide into the air. Farmer Bob redeems his voucher for 100 tons of carbon, part of which had just been sold at $20 a ton to the energy company. Bob has just made $2,000.

This scenario is not yet reality, but it won’t be long. Proponents point to the successful sulfur dioxide market. The sulfur market for emissions control was developed after the 1990 Clean Air Act set a cap on emissions of sulfur dioxide in an effort to control or reduce acid rain.

Once the cap was established, the federal government issued emission “allowances” to companies; then the trading began. Companies that ran less efficiently could buy leftover allowances from companies that ran more efficiently.

Prairie pothole preservation by farmers for “greenhouse gas crop” cash is a popular positive topic for Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota state biologists who are targeting specific pothole areas for conservation.

The areas targeted have the highest concentration of specific duck species. Pothole carbon sequestration goals build well on the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. This international partnership among the United States, Canada, Mexico, numerous U.S. state and federal agencies and private groups like Ducks Unlimited has spent $2.3 billion to preserve 9.9 million acres of grasslands and wetland habitats. The biggest push for the initiative, however, comes from those that fear global warming.

As said before, the farmer will not receive money for carbon sequestration if he farms his potholes. Farmed potholes must revert back to native plantings, and they cannot do this if they are being plowed, tilled or munched on. This checks two problems.

Number one, the quality prairie pothole sequesters carbon, and second, it ends farming. Farming actually puts more global warming gases into the atmosphere. Prairie potholes emit small quantities of methane, which is a greenhouse gas, but they emit many more greenhouse gases when farmers pump fertilizers into their soil during farming.

If you stop farming, prairie potholes not only are sequestrating carbon, but you’re subtracting those agricultural fertilizers that produce a witches’ brew of greenhouse gases. One of them, nitrous oxide, is more than 300 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide in its association as a greenhouse gas.

When you stop farming prairie potholes, you’re turning down the flame that’s stoking global warming big time, as it’s estimated that 70 percent of nitrogen emissions result from agricultural practices.

I wonder how much cleaner our air would be if just 25 percent of North America’s prairies still existed. Maybe we should consider paying area farmers to revert a portion of their land to native prairie to sequester carbon and at the same time, turn down the flame on global warming.

Rod Myers is a local resident with an interest in the environment and disability issues. He has an associate’s degree in science and a bachelor’s in fine arts. Rod is a member of the Audubon Society, the Wild Ones Natural Landscapers and Rockford Amateur Astronomers, Inc.

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