Goldman Sachs getting into the carbon business?

Mid-December last year, Goldman Sachs donated 680,000 of rainforest on Tierra Del Fuego to a charitable foundation. The basic facts of the story got picked up and repeated by a lot of environmental news outlets, but I haven’t been able to find any deeper analysis.

I find the whole thing to be very interesting. Goldman Sachs is an investment bank, and a very successful one at that. They make a lot of money off of brokering very big transactions and taking a nice juicy slice off the top. This seems to have little to do with establishing big nature reserves in the southern hemisphere.

Perhaps it makes more sense in light of the fact that they donated this land to their own charitable foundation. Of course, reading the charter of the foundation shows that it is long on talk about their work to help global youth acheive their potential. Completely absent is any sort of talk about ecological issues. In fact, the establishment of the nature reserve isn’t even mentioned on their news page.

So, what are they up to? It appears that they ended with the forest land after buying up the bad debt of a US forestry products company called Trillian. Trillian had planned to establish a big pulp operation serviced by the forest, but ran into resistance from environemental groups.

It’s unclear the value assigned to the land, but the entire project around it was once expected to draw $200M in investment.

Other financial clues of interest: The GS Foundation had $195.8M in assets at the end of 2003 from which they paid out $15.5M (a total of $54M in grants since inception in 1999).

My theory is that this donation has some hedge value for them. As managers of the foundations assets, GS can theoretically charge a fees for both the management of the assets, as well as any transactions involving the assets. What if a carbon market emerged that allowed people to trade pollution credits. Polluters could buy or rent the carbon sequestration power of a forest.

This is often talked about as a good thing for the developing world, because they tend to have more forest land than the developed world, who also happen to be the polluters. Unfortunately, in this case, the forest in question is owned by a non-profit foundation and would only benifit Chile to the degree that that foundation makes grants in the country. Unless, of course, the transaction is taxable in the contry of sequestration.

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