Attentive Daily Grist readers already know that Ford Motor Co. and carbon-offset company TerraPass have formed a new partnership (the official announcement will come tomorrow, but there are details on the TerraPass blog).

The companies have set up a co-branded website where Ford owners can enter their make, model, year, and driving habits to find out exactly how much CO2 they produce in a year — and buy carbon credits to offset it. Money from the partnership credits will go to the Ainsworth Wind Facility in Nebraska and the Haubenschild dairy farm, near Princeton, Minnesota (Ford chose those two products from TerraPass’ portfolio, based on their marketability). Credits will come with a decal drivers can affix to their windshields.

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Ford gets no money from the credit purchases; the partnership is part of a broader climate-change strategy for the company. While it has no plans for a broad advertising campaign, it will be giving educational brochures to dealers and linking to the site from several Ford product sites. TerraPass gets some money and promotion from Ford. The deal is exclusive for a short while (a matter of months), and after that TerraPass is free to make deals with other car companies; the contract itself is for a year.

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I just got off the phone with Tom Arnold (sadly not the portly actor from Roseanne), the Chief Environmental Officer for TerraPass. The most startling thing he told me was that Ford approached TerraPass about this, not vice versa.

Originally, the partnership was proposed by brand managers at Ford’s hybrid division (though hybrids are about 1% of the cars on the road, hybrid drivers buy about 8% of carbon credits). Once the negotiations started, though, word got out in Ford. Niel Golightly‘s sustainability team got wind of it, VPs started meeting about it, and the rank and file got excited about it. There was some resistance to jumping into the carbon-offset market so early and going out on a marketing limb, but apparently Bill Ford himself was instrumental in pushing for broader adoption. Overall, negotiations lasted almost a year.

Now, there are plenty of environmental groups attacking Ford, and not without good reason: its fleet has the lowest average fuel-economy of any carmaker’s. To those groups, this will no doubt reek of greenwashing. I asked Arnold if he personally had these kinds of concerns, and how they were dealt with at TerraPass.

He was skeptical at first, he said, but a combination of working closely with people at Ford and hearing others testify about working with them at the Ceres conference convinced him that the company was serious about this — that the deal with TerraPass was one part of a larger strategy. Ford has offset all manufacturing emissions for its hybrid line, and reduced its overall worldwide manufacturing emissions by 15% since 2000. Arnold stressed that there are no restrictions on what TerraPass can say; they will continue to differ with Ford on fleet fuel-efficiency and Ford’s participation with other automakers in the lawsuit against California over emissions standards.

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Neither company has any idea how people will react to this, or how popular it will be. Both are taking a big chance, public-perception-wise. If Ford just wanted to greenwash, there are plenty of other ways it could do so. This partnership is something original and innovative for it, and not without risk.

I’ve argued before that many enviros’ reflexive criticism of green corporate initiatives is counter-productive. Ford could be instrumental in giving TerraPass, carbon credits, and clean energy a big boost — a financial boost and a PR boost. We’ll have to wait and see how it turns out, but for my part, count me in the Supporter column.