Jan 20 2023

Lionshead fire update

Grayson Badgley +Danny Cullenward 
Grayson Badgley
Danny Cullenward

Another project participating in California's forest offsets program has posted paperwork documenting an unintentional reversal caused by wildfire. The project, Warm Springs Phase I (ACR260), burned in the 2020 Lionshead fire and was the first fire we actively monitored in real-time. We also looked at ACR260 in our recent publication that exposed the shaky foundations of the program's buffer pool.

Over two years after the Lionshead fire, we expected to see the project’s on-the-ground quantification of the carbon losses. But curiously, the official documents provide no such estimate. Instead, the project’s signed documents indicate that on-site carbon estimates are "Not available due to wildfire."

Having reviewed hundreds of offset project data reports, including several reports documenting wildfire reversals, this is the first time we've seen what appears to be a completed data report that lacks actual carbon estimates. In our experience, paperwork anomalies often indicate the need to pay special attention.

Offset Project Data Report (OPDR) for ACR260, Reporting Period 6 (full document). Although program regulations require a post-fire survey to estimate carbon losses, the signed OPDR indicates that the survey has not been completed.

It appears the project is not in compliance with California’s regulations. The program rules require that all offset projects provide a verified accounting of carbon losses "within 23 months of the discovery of the unintentional reversal" (see Section 95983(b)(1) of the program regulations). There is no question that date has passed. The Lionshead fire started in August 2020, erupted in September, and was fully controlled by December that year. Even if we conservatively assume that the reversal was only "discovered" once the Lionshead fire was fully contained in December 2020, that means the verified, on-site carbon estimates were due before the end of November 2022. But the newly filed paperwork — which was signed on November 16, 2022 — indicates that no estimate of project carbon stocks has taken place.

We also noticed an additional wrinkle. The anomalous paperwork was filed for the project’s Reporting Period 6, and was posted to the registry website in parallel with paperwork for Reporting Period 5. Normally, project crediting claims require an Offset Project Data Report (OPDR) as well as an Offset Verification Statement (OVS). In this case, however, the paperwork for Reporting Period 6 is missing an OVS, which is properly available for Reporting Period 5. It’s not clear to us how a verifier could sign off on the discrepancy discussed above, and while it’s possible that the project and its verifier are still talking about these issues, the absence of an OVS for the filed OPDR stands out as yet another unexplained issue.

The combination of missed deadlines and incomplete paperwork raises serious concerns. Either the project has somehow filed the incorrect paperwork, is in open violation of the program's rules, or the regulator has authorized a major exemption without publicly documenting or communicating that decision (see Update). We reached out to the offset project owner (OPO) and authorized project designee (APD) to clarify, but multiple calls and emails went unanswered. We also contacted the verifier listed on the OVS for Reporting Period 5, but they declined to comment.

When we set out to write this post we hoped to provide a quick update on how the Lionshead fire had affected ACR260, just as we recently did for multiple fires that affected CAR1102 and ACR255. What we found, instead, was a significant discrepancy that calls into question the administration of the program’s regulations.

Given the time lag between fires, required reporting — and, at least as indicated by this particular example, the potential for additional delays in resolution — we worry that the lack of public reversal data obscures the true health of the buffer pool.

Update — Feb 27 2023

On January 23, a representative from the American Carbon Registry (ACR) reached out to clarify that ACR260 submitted a verified estimate of affected carbon stocks to the California Air Resources Board (CARB) in a timely manner. Representatives from both CARB and ACR declined to share that estimate and, similarly, declined to specify when that estimate was submitted or would become available.

According to CARB and ACR, the signed OPDR for Reporting Period 6 is both subject to change and not yet due. Implicitly, these positions indicate that the document on ACR’s registry has no bearing on the ongoing verification of the reversal caused by the Lionshead fire.

In response to our follow-up questions, CARB further clarified that the Lionshead wildfire losses would be documented in Reporting Period 7. This suggests that the paperwork for Reporting Period 6 might be an irrelevant regulatory artifact. CARB pointed us to Section 95977.1(b)(3)(S) of the program regulations, which states that an OPDR isn’t considered final until an OVS is submitted. In this case, however, CARB told us that no OVS will be required for Reporting Period 6 because no credits will be claimed nor any reversals reported — and thus, it would appear that ACR260’s anomalous OPDR might never be considered “final.”

Based on our correspondence with CARB, we are satisfied that no evidence exists to demonstrate that the project is out of compliance with applicable program regulations; however, the answer depends on information that cannot be publicly confirmed. At the end of the day, we’re still waiting for public disclosure of information in CARB’s possession, and hope that information will become public soon without any unnecessary delays.

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