Congress says it is going to join the war against global warming by cleaning up its own backyard, now cluttered with a coal-burning power plant, a fleet of fuel-inefficient vehicles and old-fashioned lights.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has set a goal of making House operations carbon neutral during this session of Congress, meaning the House would remove as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as it adds by the end of next year.
"The House must lead by example and it is time for Congress to act on its own carbon footprint," Pelosi said in announcing the initiative that would also shift the House to 100 percent renewable electric power.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., has sponsored legislation with the long-term aim of making the entire Capitol complex, 23 buildings where some 15,000 people work, carbon neutral by 2020.
Currently the Capitol complex, which includes office buildings, the Library of Congress, the Botanic Garden and the Government Printing Office, accounts for about 316,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions a year, the same as 57,455 cars.
Century-old coal plant
About one-third of that comes from the combustion of fossil fuels at the 97-year-old Capitol Power Plant, the only coal-burning facility in the District of Columbia.
In addition, the Government Accountability Office said in a recent report that there is not one hybrid-electric vehicle in the legislative branch fleet of more than 300 vehicles. The fleet, mostly light-duty trucks, has only 35 vehicles that use alternative fuels, although the Architect's Office has ordered that almost all newly acquired vehicles be alternative-fuel compatible.
House workers have taken the immediate step of converting 2,000 desk lamps to more efficient compact fluorescent lamps. Within six months the remaining 10,000 desk lamps will switch to CFLs, saving the House $245,000 a year in electric power costs.
House Chief Administrative Officer Daniel Beard, in a report to Pelosi, said the House side of the Capitol, which includes four large office buildings, was responsible for 91,000 tons of greenhouse gas in the fiscal year ending last September, equivalent to annual carbon dioxide emissions of 17,200 cars.
The largest source of carbon dioxide comes from the purchase of electricity. Beard said his office, working with the Architect of the Capitol, will strive to meet all electricity needs, about 103,000 megawatt-hours per year, with renewable sources. Currently, more than half the electricity Congress buys is generated by coal. Only 2 percent comes from renewable fuels.
That alone, Beard said, would eliminate 57,000 tons a year of greenhouse gas emissions, the same as removing 11,000 cars from the roads. Another 7,130 tons would be saved with plans to convert overhead ceiling lights with high-efficiency lighting and controls.
He said these steps, and others including buying energy-efficient computers and furnishings containing recycled products and installing an ethanol tank for congressional vehicles, would still leave them about 34,000 tons short of meeting the carbon neutrality goal. This could be dealt with either by buying offset credits in the domestic market or contributing a per ton payment to a "green revolving fund" where revenues received from various sources are used for energy and water conservation initiatives.
On the Senate side, Rules and Administration Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has outlined a plan to audit energy use in all Senate buildings and reduce energy consumption by 30 percent by 2015 by installing high-efficiency lighting and buying renewable energy supplies.
All these efforts, said Anthony Kreindler, spokesman for Environmental Defense, are "meaningful not only for what they are doing for the Capitol, but it does set a good example for the rest of the country."
Political battle over coal
The biggest challenge remains the Capitol Power Plant, an eyesore located four blocks south of the Capitol. The plant hasn't generated power since 1952, but it does provide steam for heating and cooling.
The plant's boilers are fired using coal for 49 percent of their output and natural gas for 47 percent. While the plant is a fairly small source of air pollutants, it is still the District's third-biggest polluter, after two local power company plants.
"In the shadow of the nation's capital, we should expect more than a dirty power plant that pollutes the air and our community," Kerry said in a statement.
Lawmakers, dealing with the over-budget, still-unfinished $600 million Capitol Visitor Center, are in no mood to spend money on a new plant, and proposals to eliminate coal have been resisted by coal-state Sens. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
"With the emergence of new clean coal technologies, I believe coal should play a role in meeting the energy needs of the Capitol complex," Byrd said.
A proposed House spending bill for 2008 sets aside $3.9 million to begin replacing coal with greater use of natural gas. The Senate, in a nod to Byrd and McConnell, is backing a $3 million plan by Senate Environment Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., for a project that reduces carbon dioxide when coal is burned at the plant.