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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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Still, planners said, emissions remain. For example, the House gets the steam for its heat from the Capitol Power Plant. In addition to burning coal, the plant uses natural gas.

So the House turned to offsets. In 2007, it paid a market, the Chicago Climate Exchange, for offsets equaling 30,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

But The Washington Post reported last year that although the money was funneled to projects that captured greenhouse gases or avoided their emission, many had been completed before the House paid a cent. Experts said those issues make it hard to say that the House's money had caused the environmental benefits the chamber paid for.

"Maybe they're admitting that what we did [in purchasing offsets] was actually nothing," said Rep. Dan Lungren (Calif.), the ranking Republican on the House administration committee, which oversees the office that purchased the offsets.

On Friday, Ventura issued a statement saying that carbon neutrality was no longer the House's goal.

"Although original 'carbon neutrality' targets were achieved [in the last Congress], we recognize a widely accepted standard for 'absolute neutrality' does not exist, nor is there any formal accreditation process to certify an organization is carbon neutral," Ventura said. "Therefore, the second phase of Green the Capitol will focus on the continued reduction of carbon and the saving of energy through operational improvements."

This will come up again. Democratic leaders say they want to have a bill ready for debate this summer that would create a "cap-and-trade" system for greenhouse gases.

In such a system, Congress might give polluters the option of buying offsets. A power plant might pay to plant trees elsewhere in the United States or around the world, for example, because the trees capture carbon dioxide as they grow.

"It is a complicated decision," said Katherine Hamilton of the analysis group Ecosystem Marketplace. "They're going to have to decide: What are the criteria that create a viable offset? [How should they] set out the rules on how people play the game?"

The Capitol Power Plant has also been a sticky issue -- and a more obvious one because its smokestacks are just blocks from the Capitol. After a request from the House, the plant is burning more natural gas, which produces about half the greenhouse gas emissions of coal.

But it continues to burn about 35 percent coal. At last count, it was the biggest single source of several air pollutants in the District, according to the D.C. Department of the Environment.

On Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) wrote to the Architect of the Capitol office, which runs the plant, proposing that it be converted to run only on natural gas.

But the office has estimated that the conversion would cost $7.78 million. And officials with the agency are unsure how long it would take. Lungren and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) say they still want to use the plant to find ways to burn coal more cleanly.

Tomorrow's protest will argue that a change at the Capitol Power Plant should be only the beginning of a national shift from coal power. Organizers say they plan to form human chains to block the plant's entrances, and accept arrest if they have to.

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