Congressional Leaders Announce Plans to 'Green the Capitol'

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 26, 2009; 2:49 PM

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid today said they want to convert the U.S. Capitol Power Plant to burn only natural gas, calling it a key step in their effort to "green the Capitol."

The plant, opened in 1910, has been transformed in recent years from an obscure set of smokestacks in Southeast Washington to a symbol of Congress's -- and the country's -- energy dilemmas. Since they took over the House and Senate in 2006, Democrats have pushed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from the Capitol complex, but they have not succeeding in weaning the plant from emissions-heavy coal.

The move follows an order from Pelosi (D-Calif.) last year that the power plant use only less-polluting natural gas for the House's share of the plant's output, estimated at 33 percent. Despite its name, the plant does not produce the Capitol's electricity: it produces steam and chilled water to heat and cool buildings, including House and Senate offices, the Library of Congress, U.S. Supreme Court and Union Station.

In fiscal 2008, the plant generated about 65 percent of its power from natural gas, according to the architect of the Capitol's office, which runs the plant. The architect's office said that about 35 percent of the plant's energy came from burning coal, down from 49 percent in 2007.

In today's letter, Pelosi and Reid (D-Nev.) acknowledged that the plant might need to be retrofitted before it could burn natural gas only. Because of that, they said, "there are not projected to be any economical or feasible technologies to reduce coal-burning emissions soon."

But, they said, "we are . . . interested in identifying and supporting funding to retrofit" the plant. They asked the architect's office for "realistic budget numbers" to accomplish the overhaul.

They called the plant the No. 1 source of air pollution and carbon emissions in the District, and "a shadow that hangs over the success of . . . efforts to improve the environmental performance of the Capitol."

Spokespeople for Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), whose influence had stopped earlier attempts to take coal out of the plant's fuel mix, did not immediately return calls.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company