A wetlands-restoration project site in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge composed mainly of pocosin peat soils and draining to the northwest fork of the Alligator River. Photo: The Nature Conservancy

NC - Peat holds carbon market promise, but process complex

PONSER — While thousands of acres in Hyde County have produced lucrative crops for centuries, the uncultivated peatland in the county with one of the lowest population densities in the state has the potential to offer a new kind of profitable produce: carbon credits.‍

Second in a series. Read Part 1.

Sequestration of carbon dioxide, or CO2, on agricultural and forest lands has become more urgent as atmospheric levels of the potent greenhouse gas continue to rise. And Hyde’s pocosin soil, a unique type of peat, can hold enormous amounts of carbon — peatlands are one of the largest carbon stores on Earth. That means that landowners could be paid for the amount of carbon that is locked into their soil.

According to a recent State of the Voluntary Carbon Markets Briefing by nonprofit Ecosystem Marketplace, the voluntary carbon market in 2022 topped $2 billion. But joining the carbon market is far more complex and arcane than buying stocks.

“There’s a tremendous amount of opportunity,” Eric Soderholm, the Albemarle-Pamlico restoration specialist with The Nature Conservancy, recently told Coastal Review. “There’s 250,000 acres of private peatland in North Carolina alone.”

Blacklands, as pocosin is broadly known in Hyde and neighboring northeastern North Carolina coastal counties, refer to rich, black, organic matter that has accumulated for millennia in swampy fields and forests. Starting in the 1700s, the land was ditched and drained for agriculture and timber, but now scientists are studying how to rewet and restore pocosin as a way to mitigate climate change.

Carolina Ranch, a privately owned, 15,000-acre site adjacent to Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Hyde County, is currently working with several academic and engineering partners on restoration of 10,000 acres at the ranch with a goal of qualifying for carbon farming, which would be valued based on measurements of the level of CO2 that the soil holds.

Carbon credits, or offsets, represent the amount of greenhouse gases removed from the atmosphere, or the amount of reduced emissions. Those credits can be sold or traded to buyers, such as large corporations, seeking to offset their carbon emissions.

Accessing the fairly new market, however, is a rigorous and expensive process that is nearly incomprehensible to most people, even those who understand the complexities of Wall Street or cryptocurrency trading.

Soderholm, who had done extensive hydraulic restoration work for The Nature Conservancy in Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Hyde County, boiled down the following requirements:

  • A greenhouse gas project plan is submitted to the American Carbon Registry, which determines whether the proposal aligns with its standards and methodology.
  • Next, a third-party auditor examines the proposal.
  • Then, site data is analyzed.

“It’s sort of a step-by-step process,” he explained. “Some edits may have to be added before it’s validated.”

Pocosin and wetland restoration is part of The Nature Conservancy’s climate change work in the Albemarle peninsula, including reducing saltwater intrusion and mitigating flood and stormwater impacts.

Of the 110,106 acres in the Pocosin Lakes refuge, which spans land in Washington, Hyde and Tyrrell counties, about 101,600 acres are pocosin, an Algonquin term meaning “swamp on a hill.” With about 44,000 acres of the pocosin ditched and drained, over time the peat had become dried. The refuge’s natural water system is dependent on rainfall, and periods of drought had severely degraded habitat and made the land susceptible to wildfires.

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