House Is Abandoning Carbon Neutral Plan

A change in a House plan to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions comes as lawmakers struggle over the future of the Capitol Power Plant.
A change in a House plan to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions comes as lawmakers struggle over the future of the Capitol Power Plant. (2007 Photo By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 1, 2009

The U.S. House of Representatives has abandoned a plan to make its offices "carbon neutral," a sign that Congress is wrestling with a pledge to become more green even as it crafts sweeping legislation on climate change.

The promise that the House would effectively reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to zero was a centerpiece of the Green the Capitol program in which the new Democratic leadership sought to use Capitol Hill as a kind of a national demonstration project.

But last week, a spokesman for the House's chief administrative officer said the chamber's leadership had dropped an essential part of the plan, the purchase of "carbon offsets" to cancel out emissions from its buildings. Offsets are a controversial commodity that promises that a certain amount of pollution was captured or avoided elsewhere.

"Right now, there is no plan to purchase more offsets," spokesman Jeff Ventura said. The House paid $89,000 for offsets to cover the last session, in 2007 and 2008.

The decision comes as legislators also struggle with the future of the Capitol Power Plant: Hundreds of demonstrators with Greenpeace, the Rainforest Action Network and other groups will protest tomorrow against the plant's continued use of coal.

Both issues, the proper use of offsets and the right way to clean up old smokestacks, will probably come up in the national debate over climate change measures expected this year.

Congress is learning that even in its back yard, the weeds get pretty deep.

"It's very easy to make glib promises and a heck of a lot harder to follow through with real action" on climate change, said Frank O'Donnell of the nonprofit group Clean Air Watch. "In the cold light of reality, I guess, they're saying, 'Gee, it's not going to happen very easily.' "

The Green the Capitol program, announced in June 2007, has made major changes in the way the Hill moves, works and eats.

Four hybrid Zipcars are now available in House garages. The House supply store sells only 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper. And Capitol cafeterias have switched to biodegradable plates, locally grown foods and a composting system that has cut waste.

In addition, the House aimed to be the "World's First Carbon Neutral Legislative Body." Although the Senate promised to become greener, it not go that far.

The first step in the House's plan was to reduce energy use in its buildings. Workers replaced light bulbs in thousands of office lamps and made vending machines and air conditioners more efficient. And the House has paid Pepco extra for power from wind farms.

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