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Effort to 'green' U.S. Capitol complicated by coal

Story Highlights

• House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has proposed a plan to "green" the Capitol
• Emissions from the Capitol Power Plant are a big source of greenhouse gases
• Switching from coal to natural gas at the plant could cut these emissions
• Lawmakers from coal-producing states opposed previous efforts to switch
By Jim Spellman and Andrea Koppel
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's plan to make the U.S. Capitol complex more environmentally friendly is being hampered by the reluctance of lawmakers from coal-producing states to implement changes at the complex's coal-burning power plant.

In April, Pelosi, D-California, launched a plan to "green" the Capitol complex, which includes the U.S. Capitol building, the Supreme Court, Library of Congress and 24 other buildings on Capitol Hill.

Her goal is to make the complex 'carbon neutral' within two years by changing its 17,000 lamps from incandescent bulbs to corkscrew fluorescent bulbs and using eco-friendly vendors for furniture and other items.

"Under this greening of the capitol initiative ... we will become carbon neutral," Speaker Pelosi said this week. A carbon-neutral building produces no net contribution to carbon emissions, also known as greenhouse gases, which some scientists consider to be the main contributor to global warming.

But several blocks away from the U.S. Capitol sits the Capitol Power Plant, which burns coal as well as natural gas and some heating oil to heat and cool the complex. Coal accounts for 49 percent of the plant's output, according to a draft report prepared for a House committee.

When asked about removing coal from the power plant, Pelosi was noncommittal: "The recommendations that the people who know about this will put forth is what we will act upon, and there are issues involved with the power plant that we have to learn more about."

According to a recent House of Representatives report, it is likely impossible for the complex to become carbon neutral as the power plant uses coal, a major source of greenhouse gases.

"Why, when you're obviously trying to cut back then on carbon emissions and you're changing all the light bulbs and you're looking at all different of ways to cut down on emissions, do you still burn coal?" asked Dan Beard, chief administrative officer of the House of Representatives and the official in charge of the carbon reduction effort.

The answer is a "seven-letter word starting with 'p' -- 'politics.' A lot of coal state senators and congressman love to have it burning coal," Beard said.

Sen. Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, are both major defenders of coal and have stood in the way of efforts to eliminate it from the Capitol Power Plant. A plan in 2000 to stop using coal was blocked by the powerful lawmakers, whose states are major coal prodcers.

Big money is at stake for businesses that provide coal. CNN has obtained a copy of the Capitol's contract to purchase coal over the next year for the plant. Two West Virginia companies will benefit greatly.

International Resources Inc. and the Kanawha Eagle mine will provide 40,000 net tons of coal to the Capitol Power Plant for $4.6 million dollars. Campaign records show that the companies and executives from the companies gave a combined $26,300 to the campaigns of Byrd and McConnell in the 2006 election cycle alone. The companies have not returned CNN's calls.

Senator McConnell told CNN: "It's certainly not surprising that two senators from two of the greatest coal-producing states in America would be interested in seeing whether or not coal could be burned more cleanly, and I think the architect ought to take cost into account in making his final decision, and I'm sure he will."

Environmental activists see it differently. "Coal companies are supplying coal to this plant, meanwhile making campaign contributions to powerful senators. It's as if Tony Soprano had a seat in the Senate. They're saying this plant must stay alive, it must keep burning coal even though it's causing pollution and global warming," said Frank O'Donnell, president of the Clean Air Watch, an environmental watchdog group.

To offset the coal emissions and accomplish the goal of becoming carbon neutral, the Capitol will have to spend $850,000 to buy credits for the 340,000 tons of greenhouse emissions, according to a forthcoming report. CNN has obtained portions of a House of Representatives report to be released in June that says the Capitol Power Plant could reduce its carbon footprint by 30 percent if natural gas were substituted for coal.

Switching to natural gas would cost $5 million to $8 million more a year. But that cost could be offset by a reduction in the cost of disposing of fly ash, a coal byproduct, the draft report says.

O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch remains skeptical: "This plant is such an egregious polluter that there aren't enough corkscrew light bulbs in town to off-set the pollution from it."


A Capitol Power Plant smokestack rises a few blocks away from the U.S. Capitol building.



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