Once in a while the government demonstrates a pretty good sense of timing, and we were treated to a display of that last week when the Federal Trade Commission commenced a review of its so-called "Green Guides."

These are the guidelines that help marketers determine how far they can stretch the truth when they make claims about their "recycled" paper or their "biodegradable" packaging. The FTC is getting ready to update the guidelines for the first time since 1998, and one of the key questions it is asking is whether it should revise the guidelines to include claims about carbon offsets.

Our answer is a resounding yes.

As we report in our news pages today, the FTC correctly observes that when consumers purchase carbon offsets or renewable-energy certificates to reduce their carbon footprint, they are rarely in a position to verify what they're buying, which increases the potential for deception and fraud.

And it's not just consumers who can be defrauded. Manufacturers and service providers throughout the economy, including travel suppliers and their intermediaries, often steer consumers to particular purveyors of carbon offsets, hopefully after doing some "due diligence."

But how diligent can they be? For the most part, hotels, airlines and other travel companies must rely on nonprofit environmental groups or other third parties for certification of offset programs.

These voluntary organizations play an important role, but today's unregulated market in carbon offsets still depends an awful lot on trust. Does your money go to support a wind farm somewhere that wouldn't exist otherwise? Who really knows?

Given the flak that travel companies, particularly airlines, are taking over global warming, we think it's critically important that consumers seeking to buy carbon offsets have confidence in what they buy. If the FTC can help bring that about by including these offerings under its Green Guides, we're all for it.

Cost-sharing at ARC 

The ARC board meets this week, and as far as most travel agents are concerned there's only one thing on the agenda: a proposal to raise agency fees.

Given that the ARC board consists of people who represent ARC's airline owners, we're betting that the agency opponents of the increase will lose this round and that the matter will end up in arbitration.

If and when that happens, we will have a resolution to the problem of ARC's fee structure for 2008, but we won't have a solution to what many agents see as the underlying problem: ARC is 100% owned by the airlines, and they can do pretty much whatever they want.

From the time of ARC's creation in 1985, agency fees have traditionally covered about 10% of ARC's operating costs while the airlines paid 90%.

Nobody seems to remember why, though there is one theory that it reflected the split of ticket revenue in 1985: 90% to the airline, 10% commission to the agent. But it was never carved in stone, and ARC's management now claims that it is looking to the future.

Well and good, but if ARC wants to come up with a new cost-sharing formula, it seems to us that agents deserve to get a lot more information than they're getting.

And they deserve to get it in writing this time.

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