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Blog Posts: Pollution Trading

December 13th, 2013

It was a Bad Idea in 1489…

By Eve Mitchell

Some things get better with age — fine wine, farmhouse cheese. Some just don’t.

It’s all the fashion these days to talk about a “new” way to ensure that companies involved in food production are held accountable for the environmental damage they do. Often called natural capital accounting or offsetting, the theory is that if we attach a notional price to, say, healthy soil and clean water, then companies can use that information to account for any damage they do, or be somehow rewarded for avoiding this damage.

Among the several difficulties with this approach are that (a) it isn’t new and (b) it doesn’t work.

To the folks promoting this stuff: please convince me that this isn’t an extension of the Enclosures and Clearances on a global scale, because it sure feels like it. Read the full article…

November 20th, 2013

Carbon Offset Schemes: Trading Our Forests Does Not Reduce Emissions

REDD+ programs continue to be fraught with corruption and scams.

By Elizabeth Nussbaumer and Rich Bindell

For those worried about climate change, sometimes we have to be just as concerned about the solutions proposed to combat it. In order to reduce carbon emissions, the largest contributing threat to global warming—which has also reached a new high according to the World Meteorological Organization—opportunists increasingly favor trading carbon offset credits on a global market, misleadingly describing the practice as an improvement for overall emissions reductions.

Offset credits represent an emissions reduction that happens in another location away from where emissions actually occur — a polluter in California can pay a land owner in Oregon to not cut down the forest on their land because trees take carbon dioxide (CO2)out of the atmosphere and cutting them down would release CO2 back into the atmosphere. But due to the questionable practices of many offset projects, and the inability of numerous initiatives to provide proof of legitimate reductions, these programs can be more aptly described as suspicious rather than effective.  

One sad example of offset schemes has grown out of an equally troubled initiative called REDD+, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. The controversial REDD+ program assigns emissions credits for CO2 sequestered by trees and then trades these credits in an international market. That value is directly tied to the protection of forests for their absorption of CO2 emissions through trees. In other words, credits are created and sold based on the idea of leaving forests undisturbed. Read the full article…

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February 26th, 2013

Ag Certainty: Making Certain that the Bay Remains Polluted

By Michele Merkel

Despite all the rhetoric about how important it is to have an unpolluted and healthy Chesapeake Bay, sometimes you just have to wonder if anyone is really taking this Bay cleanup issue seriously. We’ve known for years now that agricultural operations in the Bay states are the number one source of nutrients and sediments to the watershed, yet neither state nor federal regulators have shown any willingness to do any of the things – permitting, compliance mandates and enforcement – that have worked well with so many other polluting industries.

While power plants, paper mills, sewage treatment plants and manufacturing plants have largely been cleaned up through the implementation of regulatory “stick” approaches, the chosen method of ag pollution abatement comprises of a series of unsuccessful, voluntary “carrot” approaches, including manure transport programs and nutrient trading.

After decades of failure, we’re about to reach new depths of futility with a bill, largely written by Maryland’s own Department of Agriculture, which was introduced this legislative session in Maryland by Senator Thomas Middleton. Middleton’s “Ag Certainty” bill will not only make certain that these highly polluting operations continue to pollute with officially sanctioned immunity, but it will also openly undermine the current Bay cleanup plan – the Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).

Ag Certainty refers to a program under which agricultural operations that certify that they meet pollution reduction goals or certain pollution-control requirements will be deemed in compliance with existing and/or future water quality regulations and standards. In short, it’s a blanket immunity program designed to offer Big Ag a continuing free ride from mandatory pollution control and enforcement. Even worse, it ties regulator’s hands when it comes to implementing more protective water quality approaches when needed. Read the full article…

January 30th, 2013

Pollution Trading: A Marketplace of Bad Ideas

By Scott Edwards

Nutrient pollution trading, which includes nitrogen and phosphorous, has been a hot topic of conversation in the Chesapeake Bay watershed ever since EPA signed off on the controversial practice in its Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) at the end of 2010. Trading represents a recent trend that allows for the creation and exchange of credits for the “right” to pollute, instead of enforcing proven regulations that require companies to pollute less.

There are two common rationales offered by pollution trading proponents. First, it allows already existing sources of pollution like power plants and wastewater treatment plants, known as point sources, to purchase credits from farms instead of upgrading pollution control technologies to reduce their discharges. Since paying-off agricultural operations to self-certify that they’re reducing pollution down on the farm is cheaper than installing new equipment at power plants, it saves money — at least, for polluting industries.

Second, trading is also a way to allow for future growth by letting new discharges of pollution into already impaired waterways without first requiring the current sources to reduce their loads. Instead, it allows these new pollution sources to go online if they can find an existing source somewhere (not necessarily in the same waterway) who is willing to claim reductions in their own discharges to offset the new loads.

To date, much of the trading discussion has been theoretical, but as actual trades and offsets begin to take hold in the Bay watershed, illegal on-the-ground practices are becoming evident and it does not bode well for the Bay and local waterways.

Industry’s adherence to Clean Water Act (CWA) permits is the biggest success story in our 40-year effort to clean up our watersheds. Just this week Food & Water Watch filed a lawsuit against NRG Energy after discovering that three of its power plants in the Bay watershed have been exceeding their permit limits by many thousands of pounds of nitrogen each year. Both the company and the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) were well aware of these violations but, to date, neither one has taken any steps to make sure the company reduced their discharges to comply with their permit limits. Read the full article…

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October 18th, 2012

Should Credible News Organizations Call Us Extremists?

You spoke, KSN News listened—and aired a retraction. Can you thank them for acknowledging their error and doing the right thing by clicking on this image?

By Wenonah Hauter

Update, October 18: Food & Water Watch has learned that KSN News aired a retraction to their statement calling us extremists and ran an apology. We sincerely thank our supporters for taking action and we want to recognize KSN News for stepping up and correcting this on air.


Lately, I am haunted by the phrase, “extremist environmental groups.” I’ve been hearing those words strung together more often, and it usually comes from members of the right-wing media or the public relations team of a corporation trying to profit from a public resource. That’s expected, but what is worrying is when a mainstream news organization starts parroting these talking points. Last week, it came from a source that surprised me: KSNW, an NBC affiliate news station in Wichita, Kansas.

The station ran a short news segment about a joint lawsuit filed against the U.S. EPA by Food & Water Watch and Friends of the Earth. In the segment, KSNW made the mistake of injecting opinion into journalism by referring to us as two “extremist environmental groups.” Extremist? For what? For trying to protect the Chesapeake Bay from large companies that can pay for the “right” to pollute using entirely legal means? For trying to protect the integrity of the Clean Water Act, landmark legislation that has dramatically decreased water pollution over the past several years? Read the full article…

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October 5th, 2012

Fighting Pollution Trading to Preserve the Clean Water Act

By Wenonah Hauter

Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director, Food & Water Watch

This week, Food & Water Watch and Friends of the Earth filed a joint lawsuit to force the Environmental Protection Agency to preserve the integrity of the Clean Water Act as it turns 40 years old this month. Represented by the Columbia Law School’s Environmental Law Clinic, we are suing for the removal of the water pollution trading provisions that are part of the 2010 plan to clean up the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

This cap-and-trade plan for water, known as the Bay total maximum daily load or TMDL, is being promoted by both the EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, both of which view the program in the Bay region as a national model that would be replicated in watersheds across the nation. But if this scheme is allowed to move forward it will allow new and increased pollution discharges into the Chesapeake Bay watershed under a complex system of market-based offsets and pollution trading that we believe is illegal under the Clean Water Act.

Pollution trading violates the fundamental concept that the Clean Water Act is built upon, which is that pollution is illegal and industries don’t have a right to poison our shared waterways. Ironically, this evisceration of the Clean Water Act is taking place as the landmark piece of legislation that was passed during the Nixon Administration is about to have its 40th anniversary. It is built on the premise that we should strive to eliminate water pollution from our lakes, rivers and bays. Water pollution trading schemes are a disastrous substitute for proven means of regulating harmful chemical discharges into our waterways.

And we should be clear that the Clean Water Act (CWA) has been an enormously successful piece of legislation. In 1972, two-thirds of our nation’s waterways were unsafe for fishing. Chemicals and wastewater were indiscriminately dumped into our waterways. Today, according to EPA about one-third of our nation’s waterways are unhealthy. Obviously there is more work to do, but why would we allow such an effective piece of legislation to be replaced by a scheme that essentially legitimizes pollution?

The water pollution trading that is being promoted in the Chesapeake Bay is based on buying and selling unverifiable pollution credits. It turns what is now illegal under the CWA into the right to pollute. It’s essentially an “entitlement” program for the financial services industry and polluters.

The federal plan for the bay that includes trading is based on the total maximum daily load of pollutants that can be discharged and still allow a water body to meet water quality standards set by the states under CWA. These pollutants come from energy facilities, factories and wastewater treatment plants and those harder to control nonpoint sources like many of the Bay’s agricultural operations.

The TMDL is, in the simplest sense, a rationing plan. It seeks to allocate pollution loads to our waterways among the many sources of pollution in the Bay. The TMDL can be an effective tool to reduce pollution, but it must be developed and implemented consistently with the goal to eliminate the biggest threats to the Bay watershed – nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment.

As a practical matter, the trading of pollution credits is inherently fraught with problems.  In this case, EPA is allowing trading without setting clear and enforceable minimum limits on trading activity, including providing safeguards to prevent fictitious or overstated pollution reductions from being used as offsets.

The “pay-to-pollute” trading program allows financial middlemen to identify and purchase nitrogen and phosphorus “credits” from industrial agriculture operations in the watershed that attest to reducing their pollution levels in the future. These unverifiable credits are then aggregated and bundled together, and sold to power plants, wastewater treatment plants and other “point source” polluters who are either unable or simply unwilling to meet their CWA permit limits.

Many states have tried to implement nutrient trading schemes around the country, but there is no documented, successful nonpoint-to-point source trading program implemented in any watershed in the United States.

And, we must look at this trading scheme in context. Rather than regulating pollution, it is part of an on-going effort spurred by the financial services industry of using the market to allocate costs to the environment, rather than using the performance-based indicator of meeting a regulated standard.

But, in the wake of the largest financial crisis in 75 years, one both created and spread by the irresponsible behavior of the financial service sector, the argument that free market-based principles should replace traditional environmental regulation is wrong minded. It represents a financialization of nature and the transferring of the stewardship of our common resources to private business interests. It makes the responsibility of caring for our natural resources secondary to the economic interests of the few.

Leaving the health of the bay to this trading scheme is reckless and it is a recipe for disaster.

August 24th, 2012

Seven Million Taxpayer Dollars Down the Drain

By Mitch Jones

Earlier today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it is awarding over $7 million in grants to organizations and state agencies across the country to develop water quality trading, or cap-and-trade for nitrogen and phosphorous pollution. Under the guise of controlling pollution, the government is actually trying to give people the option of buying and selling the “right” to pollute.

This is a complete waste of taxpayer dollars.

Water quality trading is nothing new, although the government is pushing to make it the dominant way that we try to control pollution in our waterways. In fact, over the past 20 years, few if any trading schemes have delivered positive results. Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc., the trade industry for the poultry industry in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, knows the real effect of water quality trading. In their June 2010 newsletter, they described the idea as “a program … to help farmers earn money while providing polluters with the opportunity to increase their pollution to the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.” And taxpayers subsidize it all. 

Water quality trading is really just a way for the government to avoid regulating pollution in our waterways while turning over its responsibilities to financial interests. Wall Street bankers are looking for new opportunities to create big bonuses for themselves, and they are turning their sights to our common resources. In awarding $7 million to help make this possible, the USDA is selling out our resources to the Wall Street casino. If you like what they did with the housing market, just wait ‘til you see what they do with our water. 

July 23rd, 2012

We Can’t Put a Price on Nature

The greenwashed economy threatens our ability to pursue sustainable development.

By Wenonah Hauter

Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch

(This post originally appeared at Otherwords.org.)

A group of international scientists says that the earth is dangerously close to its tipping point of irreversible damage. Clearly, we need a way out of the mess we’ve made of the planet.

The so-called “green economy,” which governments, business leaders, and some environmental organizations touted at last month’s United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, is actually a greenwashed economy. Its proponents ask questions such as: how can we put a price on nature so as to better manage it? Or, how can we make it financially undesirable to pollute? Those are the wrong questions, and they don’t lead us to real solutions.

Putting a price on nature — as if it were a widget to be bought and sold on the market — devalues its life-giving properties. It partitions the environment off as a commodity, leaving it for sale to the highest bidder. And pollution trading is like paying a robber not to steal from your home. Neither gets to the root causes of our environmental problems: the failure to take meaningful regulatory actions and the undemocratic means by which our natural resources are managed worldwide.

As our access to the planet’s resources that once seemed endless has become limited, corporations, multinational institutions, industry-funded non-profits, and policymakers are eagerly offering market-based solutions. They typically position private interests to profit from our increased need for shared natural resources.

Calling this dangerous trend “the green economy” just isn’t appropriate. It’s more accurate to say that these special interests are promoting the same old dirty economy under a new banner. And this failure to prevent pollution threatens our ability to pursue sustainable development.

Through clever greenwashing campaigns, huge companies have somehow created the ability to buy and trade credits that they claim will curb pollution. These cap-and-trade programs do little but encourage larger companies with deeper pockets to continue with business as usual. That ultimately leads to the continued disposal of contaminants into our waterways and our atmosphere.

Likewise, thanks to relentless lobbying and a hefty advertising campaign, the oil and gas industry has managed to convince key lawmakers and consumers alike that fracking for natural gas is the key to energy independence. However, that process — formally called hydraulic fracturing or shale-gas drilling — requires large quantities of water and a cocktail of toxic chemicals. Fracking can poison drinking water supplies, air, and farmland, endangering public health.

Meanwhile, some of us are struggling to protect the marine environment from pollution and overfishing of endangered species, while large commercial interests try to privatize access to fish or acquire permits to establish aquaculture enterprises in federal waters. These factory fish farms threaten the health of ocean ecosystems. What’s “green” about that?

And while we struggle to maintain that water is a human right, multinational corporations are privatizing public water utilities in communities around the world and profiting in places where safe drinking water is scarce.

Our food system is also rigged to benefit a select few companies who monopolize markets and profit from farmers who have no choice but to sell their goods cheaply. Walmart, for example, says it wants to offer healthier food options at affordable prices, but until it changes its business model — which squeezes farmers and workers and drives food production to become more consolidated and industrialized — highly processed foods will remain more accessible than healthier, better quality food.

We must promote real solutions that involve communities in the decision making, not just companies. We must protect the land and our water and decrease carbon emissions for the benefit of the public — not for the profits of private interests.