California Watch investigates PG&E's Climate Smart

PG&E's website touts its Climate Smart program as a way of allowing its customers to offset their carbon footprint. For $60 a year, ratepayers can contribute to projects that protect the environment. Projects like the Garcia River Forest near Point Arena. But as it turns out, taxpayers already have paid to protect and selectively log the 24,000 acre forest.

California provided the Virginia-based Conservation Fund with nearly $50 million in loans and grants through taxpayer-funded bond money. The fund is a non-profit created in 1985 to invest in environmental projects.

California Watch reporter Susanne Rust uncovered the story.

"The Conservation Fund realized that they could make a little more money off the land by selling carbon credits off it," said Rust.

That angers ratepayer advocates at The Utility Reform Network, or TURN.

"What we're concerned about is it sounds like double counting," said executive director Mark Toney from TURN.

Toney has long questioned the Climate Smart program. He worries that the 30,000 residential and business customers enrolled in the Climate Smart program are being taken advantage of.

"All PG&E has done is paid for a project that's already protected," said Toney.

The San Francisco-based utility says customers can be assured that the Climate Smart program is investing in things that make a difference to the environment.

"The California Public Utilities Commission actually requires us to only invest in projects where the benefit of the mitigation measures will be in the future, going forward, it's very important that those mitigation measures have not already been implemented," said PG&E spokesperson Katie Romans.

The utility says its contribution allows the Conservation Fund to continue to protect the forest.

The fund bought the forest under the agreement that they would harvest some timber to cover its operation costs and manage the property.

"You're talking about erosion control, biologists, you are talking about fire prevention measures being taken place, and we actually estimate that we've created about a dozen jobs," said Romans.

PG&E estimates that the Conservation Fund would lose $4.5 million without the Climate Smart contribution. Without the contribution, the fund argues it would have to cut down more trees.

"It's only through programs like Climate Smart, that we've been able to reduce harvests, even below what we already had contemplated," said Chris Kelly from the Conservation Fund.

Though they are not doing anything illegal, critics of PG&E say it can do a better job with the Climate Smart program.

"We think it would make a lot of sense and be smart for them to take initiative and do the right thing without being forced to," said Toney.

For more on this California Watch report, check out The story will also be in Friday's San Francisco Chronicle.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel

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