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Washington — General Motors Co. is purchasing carbon credits from North Dakota grasslands aimed at reduce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to removing 5,000 cars through a new government-backed partnership.

The U.S. Agriculture Department is announcing the program at its headquarters Monday and hoping other businesses take part. A farm bill grant helped value the credits. GM’s Chevrolet unit has purchased almost 40,000 carbon dioxide reduction tons generated on working ranch grasslands in the Prairie Pothole region of North Dakota. GM is acquiring credits from around 6,000 acres.

“This announcement is the first-of-its-kind. The amount of carbon dioxide removed from our atmosphere by Chevrolet’s purchase of carbon credits equals the amount that would be reduced by taking 5,000 cars off the road,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. “This public-private partnership demonstrates how much can be achieved with a modest federal investment and a strong commitment to cut carbon pollution.”

Robert Bonnie, USDA’s under secretary for natural resources and environment, is announcing the purchase, joined by Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing; Greg Martin, GM’s executive director for global public policy; Sean Penrith, executive director of The Climate Trust; and John Tomke and Paul Schmidt of Ducks Unlimited.

“Along with GM’s interest, our hope is there will be additional companies that will be interested in pursuing this,” Bonnie said Friday. He thinks many ranchers in North Dakota and other states and many companies will be interested in taking part. Bonnie said it was important that the credits be “real” and that the government’s role in creating the methodology for valuing the credits was critical.

Millions of acres in the West could be eligible to take part in the program, USDA said. The Agriculture Department is supporting other carbon offset programs, including one in Illinois for some practices on corn and soybean fields. Bonnie said it was important that the program have “real climate benefits.” Farmers and ranchers can reforest land, improve livestock and conservation practices to reduce carbon emissions. “If you look at the broad universe, there’s actually a lot of opportunity for agriculture to contribute to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions,” Bonnie said.

Martin said GM’s move was one of many examples of GM’s commitment to environmental stewardship. Last month, GM announced it would complete by year’s end a new 2.2 megawatt ground-mounted solar array at its Lordstown complex in northeast Ohio, where it assembles the Chevrolet Cruze. GM last year installed a 1.8 megawatt solar ray at its Toledo Transmission facility.

“We are looking at making sustainability an integrated part of our business,” Martin said.

The carbon dioxide tons purchased by GM are equivalent to a year’s worth of greenhouse gas emissions generated from more than 5,000 cars — and means the grasslands will be in a permanent conservation easement. Landowners can continue to use the land for grazing and livestock production.

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service awarded $161,000 through a Conservation Innovation Grant to Ducks Unlimited in 2011 to develop the metrics to quantify the carbon stored in the soil by avoiding grassland conversions, resulting in the generation of carbon credits. The program also ensures better water quality and duck habitat.

They way it works is ranchers voluntarily place lands under a perpetual easement but retain rights to work the land, such as raising livestock and growing hay; carbon storage benefits of this avoided conversion of grasslands are quantified, verified and formally registered, resulting in carbon credits. The credits are then made available for sale to those seeking carbon offsets.

Ranchers receive compensation for the carbon credits generated on their lands. USDA notes thriving grasslands provide nesting habitat for wildlife, are more resilient to extreme weather, and help mitigate the impact of climate change.

dshepardson@detroitnews.com

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