By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 5, 2007
Daniel Beard, the House's chief administrative officer, will cut a taxpayer-funded check today for $89,000 to buy credits that will offset the impact of 30,000 tons of carbon belched into the atmosphere by the U.S. Capitol's antiquated, coal-burning power plant every year.
That is not much -- out of a $2.7 trillion federal budget -- to strike a blow against climate change, but Republicans are hot under the collar about it precisely because they are not sure it will do anything about global warming.
"This could be nothing more than a $100,000 press conference," steamed Salley Collins, spokeswoman for the House Administration Committee, which oversees Beard's activities.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) vowed this year to make the gleaming sandstone-and-marble Capitol "green" by the end of 2008. Shutting down the only coal-burning power plant in the District of Columbia is a priority, Beard says. But with powerful coal-state lawmakers protecting it, deep-sixing the plant will not be easy.
Buying pardons for its offenses is, however, thanks to the growing market for carbon offsets. You simply turn over some money, and the offsetters promise to absolve your sins by putting it to use on green technologies, planting trees, pumping carbon dioxide underground and the like.
But the carbon-offset trade is only as good as the offsetters' word and the market's police force. Beard will make his purchase on the Chicago Climate Exchange, which administers a voluntary cap-and-trade system, in which North American participants pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Companies that reduce more than their pledge can sell their good deeds on the market to those, like the U.S. Capitol, who are not doing so well. Projects claiming carbon-saving efforts can sell their gains on the exchange as "carbon financial instruments."
Beard said he looked into investing the money directly into projects that reduce greenhouse gas concentrations, but he did not want to be in the position of favoring one technology over another.
Republicans are not the only ones questioning whether the system works. A tree planted to swallow carbon dioxide is only an offset as long as it does not get cut down. Carbon dioxide that is "sequestered" -- pumped into the ground -- spares the air only as long as it stays put.
"Voluntary offsets are of limited value to solve the increasing threat of climate change," warned researchers at Tufts University last year. "They should not be seen as a way to buy 'environmental pardons.' "
An advocacy group, Clean Air-Cool Planet, said last year that the carbon financial instruments on sale at the Chicago Climate Exchange may actually be undercutting the carbon-offset market because it is becoming difficult to judge whether such credits represent any real greenhouse gas reductions.
"What can I say? I just disagree," Beard said. "Obviously, this is an emerging marketplace, but it's a marketplace of the future, and the Capitol is leading. My question is, why wait?"
In May, Reps. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) and Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) asked the Government Accountability Office to review the growing carbon-offset industry, a study that should be completed by April. In July, Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.), the Administration Committee's ranking minority member and a physicist, personally asked Beard to hold off purchasing the credits until the GAO reports back. On Friday, Ehlers dashed off another letter to Beard, urging delay.
"Using our limited House resources for purchases where the measure of return is so dubious makes me very wary," Ehlers wrote.
But the purchase will go on, complete with a bipartisan celebration today at Chicago's Field Museum.
"The chairman is supportive of the greening-of-the-Capitol effort and has confidence in Mr. Beard's administration of the program," said Kyle Anderson, spokesman for Administration Committee Chairman Robert A. Brady (D-Pa.).