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Value of U.S. House's Carbon Offsets Is Murky

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 28, 2008

The House of Representatives has presumably learned that money cannot buy love or happiness. Now, it turns out it's not a sure solution to climate guilt, either.

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In November, the Democratic-led House spent about $89,000 on so-called carbon offsets. This purchase was supposed to cancel out greenhouse-gas emissions from House buildings -- including half of the U.S. Capitol -- by triggering an equal reduction in emissions elsewhere.

Some of the money went to farmers in North Dakota, for tilling practices that keep carbon buried in the soil. But some farmers were already doing this, for other reasons, before the House paid a cent.

Other funds went to Iowa, where a power plant had been temporarily rejiggered to burn more cleanly. But that test project had ended more than a year before the money arrived.

The House's purchase provides a view into the confusing world of carbon offsets, a newly popular commodity with few rules. Analysts say some offsets really do cause new reductions in pollution. But others seem to change very little.

To environmentalists, the House's experience is a powerful lesson about a market where pure intentions can produce murky results.

"It didn't change much behavior that wasn't going to happen anyway," said Joseph Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who writes a blog calling for more aggressive action on climate change. "It just, I think, demonstrated why offsets are controversial and possibly pointless. . . . This is a waste of taxpayer money."

The House bought its offsets through the Chicago Climate Exchange, a five-year-old commodities market where greenhouse-gas credits are traded like pork bellies.

This month, officials at the exchange vigorously defended the sale, saying the House's purchase had done a great deal of good by funneling money to those who were helping to combat climate change.

"It basically rewards people for having done things that had environmental good in the past and incentivizes people to do things that have environmental good in the future," said Richard Sandor, the exchange's chairman and chief executive.

He rejected the argument that the exchange shouldn't sell offsets until it can prove that the pollution reductions wouldn't have happened if the money wasn't paid. "We can't, as an exchange, trade hypothetical things," Sandor said.

The offset purchase was part of a Green the Capitol initiative, begun after Democrats took over last year. House leaders bought compact fluorescent light bulbs to save energy and ordered the Capitol Power Plant to burn natural gas instead of dirtier coal. For emissions they couldn't avoid, they bought offsets: 30,000 metric tons at about $2.97 per metric ton.


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