STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
On the first Monday of 2015, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. This is the year when the world's nations say they're going to sign a new treaty to curb climate change. They say so anyway - they failed for years to agree on how to do that. Here in the United States, plenty of entrepreneurs are not waiting for the diplomats. They are finding ways to cut carbon emissions and make money from doing it. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports on the growth of cash for carbon.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Too much carbon in the atmosphere is warming the planet. One way to get rid of it is to dig a pit in the middle of an Oregon dairy farm and fill it with manure.
JASON MITCHELL: This is where it comes in - in the pipelines right there.
JOYCE: The liquid manure comes into the pit.
MITCHELL: The liquid manure comes into the pit, yep.
JOYCE: The manure pit that Jason Mitchell points out is hard to miss. It's the size of a swimming pool. Every day, 80,000 gallons of manure get piped into the pit. Eventually, the slurry goes to a tank - a digester, Mitchell calls it.
MITCHELL: That's where the methane is created.
JOYCE: Methane is a combination of carbon and hydrogen. It's a potent greenhouse gas that warms the atmosphere - cow manure is ripe with it - but here, the methane is captured and funneled into a red generator the size of a mini-bus. The generator burns it to make electricity. That electricity is sold back to the local power company. The farmers get paid.
MITCHELL: There are a lot of farms around that are very interested in doing - putting something like this on their facility. We're using the manure and we're creating energy.
JOYCE: And this is good for the climate as well. Daryl Maas is Mitchell's boss and head of FarmPower, which runs this and several other manure operations in the Northwest.
DARYL MAAS: That methane would normally be emitted gradually, sitting out in the field or in a pond, up into the air, but because of what we do, it's extracted in an airtight environment so we can capture it, use it for fuel and it never enters the atmosphere.
JOYCE: That could be the end of the story, but there's more here. FarmPower makes additional money just for taking that methane out of circulation. For every ton of that methane they capture they earn a credit worth about five to $10. FarmPower then sells those credits to anyone who has to lower their own carbon emissions, say, a coal-fired power plant. If the power plant buys a credit it can claim a one-ton reduction in its omissions, no matter where it is. So a polluter in California can claim a reduction from decanting cow manure in Oregon.
The U.S. carbon market is worth a few hundred million dollars a year now. Maas points out that people who profit from it, like those Oregon dairy farmers, for example, don't necessarily care about climate change.
MAAS: They're not interested in the political debates over climate change. They're very happy to sell the carbon credits. You know, that's a good business proposition right now. The market is getting more dependable and it's getting stronger and if there's a market there people will supply to it.
JOYCE: That market also pays people who come up with new ideas for cutting carbon. The Climate Trust in Portland, Oregon, is one of the oldest brokers in this carbon market. Its director is Sean Penrith.
SEAN PENRITH: We see innovation every single day from ranchers, farmlands, dairy people, foresters - these people are really creative.
JOYCE: For example, rice farmers in California can now get credits for growing rice with less water - that lowers carbon emissions. The carbon market is still small in the U.S., but it's growing and Penrith says there's a lot of potential. There's close to a hundred trillion dollars in the hands of private investors around the world who are looking to make money off their money.
PENRITH: Tell me where the most power, economically, lives in the world. It's in the markets. It's in these corporations, Wall Street, however you want to frame it.
JOYCE: Some environmentalists argue that carbon trading lets big energy companies off the hook by allowing them to pay someone else to reduce emissions. Penrith acknowledges that these credits do allow big polluters extra time to postpone cutting their own emissions, but regulations keep companies from buying more than 8 percent of their reductions from the carbon market. They have to do the rest themselves. And he says that 8 percent is all entrepreneurs need to turn cow manure into cash. Christopher Joyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.