Lawmakers ask coal-fired plant near Capitol to switch to gas

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 26, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Four days before a planned civil disobedience action at a coal-fired power plant near the U.S. Capitol, the leaders of the House of Representatives and the Senate asked Thursday for the plant to replace all its coal with natural gas.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate majority leader, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sent a letter to Stephen Ayers, the acting architect of the Capitol, who's in charge of maintaining the Capitol complex, telling him to reduce the amount of coal burned at the plant and to prepare for converting it to burn only natural gas by the end of the year.

The power plant, three blocks south of the Capitol, has been running every day since it went into service in 1910. It provides heating and cooling for the Capitol, the Library of Congress and about 20 other federal buildings on Capitol Hill, using both coal and natural gas.

The plant is the No. 1 source of air pollution and carbon pollution in the nation's capital, the letter said.

For environmental activists it's something more, however — a symbol of the nation's reliance on coal, the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel. Scientists have identified heat-trapping carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels as the primary reason for the increase in Earth's average temperature in recent decades.

Capitol Climate Action, a coalition of environmental and other advocacy groups, plans to hold a civil disobedience demonstration at the plant on Monday, capping PowerShift, a national conference of young environmentalists in Washington.

"I think it's time we take a stand on global warming. We need to send a message to Congress and the president," NASA climate scientist James Hansen said in a video message to participants on YouTube. He plans to join the protest.

"What has become clear from the science is we cannot burn all the fossil fuels without creating a very different planet," Hansen said. "The only practical way to solve the problem is to phase out the biggest source of carbon and that is coal."

Nell Greenberg, a spokeswoman for Capitol Climate Action, said the demonstration would call for broader action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Pelosi and Reid asked the Architect of the Capitol to provide information about what it would cost to retrofit the plant's two boilers to operate entirely on natural gas. They said they want one of them converted as early as this summer and the other by year's end.

The office of the Architect of the Capitol is committed to increasing energy efficiency and reducing the carbon footprint, and planning is under way "to make this a reality," said spokeswoman Eva Malecki.

The power plant was the last step, "right under the nose" of Congress and an example of a way to quickly move away from coal, said Bruce Nilles of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign.

Getting rid of the coal is important not just for global warming but also for health, Nilles said.

"The day before the inauguration was a Code Orange day" because of high pollution, he said. "It was a lousy way to welcome the first family, which has one asthmatic daughter."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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