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Friday, February 27, 2009

Capitol Hill coal power plant targeted by environmentalists

Capitol Hill coal power plant targeted by environmentalists

Campaigners are converging on Washington to press for the closure of 'Congress's own coal fired power plant,' marking a political turning point for the future of the fossil fuel

Capitol Power Plant

The stacks of the Capitol Hill power plant loom in front of the dome of the United States Capitol. Photograph: Jocelyn Augustino

It might, in other circumstances, seem a quaint and harmless relic from another era: a coal plant built 99 years ago to assure Congress an independent source of power.

But the Capitol Hill Power Plant, a compact red brick building now encircled by modern concrete, is seen by some as evidence of how a powerful industry has been able to bend Congress to its will.

Coal is the dirtiest of fossil fuels, and yet provides half of America's electricity – a lethal connection that environmentalists say is epitomised in the continued existence of a plant that should have been retired decades ago.

"In terms of carbon emissions, this plant is small potatoes, but it really is a very powerful iconic symbol. It is Congress's own coal fired power plant," said Matt Leonard of Greenpeace. "It can burn gas or oil or coal and people have fought very hard over the years to make sure it burns coal."

That may be about to change. On Thursday, Democratic leaders in Congress called for an overhaul of the plant so it could run entirely on natural gas by the end of 2009.

The order came down as more than 10,000 young people began converging on Washington – campus activists, union organisers, and even members of college sororities – to lobby members of Congress to reduce America's reliance on coal.

Organisers say this could be the tipping point in the fight against coal, after years of steady activism on college campuses and in rural coal-mining communities.

Since mid-2006, plans for more than 83 coal plants have been halted. This week alone, Michigan's governor announced a moratorium on all new coal plants, and a Georgia court put a stop on a coal plan for failing to put in place pollution controls.

The campaign got an extra push late last year when Al Gore championed a drive to make Americans aware of the connection between coal and electricity.

The Reality Coalition has plastered public transport with its ads, which seek to
counter the industry's argument that coal is abundant and cheap, and that technology enabling the production of "clean" or carbon-free coal is on the horizon.

The latest television ad, produced by the Oscar-winning Coen brothers, shows a salesman spraying black smog from an aerosol can to debunk the notion of clean coal.

With Barack Obama in the White House and the Democrats in Congress poised to act on climate change, this could be the beginning of the end of America's coal age.

Obama called on Congress this week to pass legislation to cut carbon - leading some to hope that the battle over coal is in its final phase.

Organisers of the Power Shift lobbying effort aim to give it the final push. They say they have set up meetings with 80 Senators and 287 members of the house of representatives, Republican and Democrat, to convince them to vote for action on climate change.

"We are not mincing words. When we walk into those offices in Congress we will be calling for bold carbon reduction," said Jessy Tolkan, 27, the director of the Energy Action Coalition, which represents 50 youth organisations. "We want an immediate moratorium on coal. We don't believe in clean coal."

Meanwhile, some 2,000 others, led by the NASA climate scientist, Jim Hansen, and the actor, Darryl Hannah, will gather for a protest at the Capitol's coal plant.

The survival of the plant – the only coal burning station within Washington's boundaries – is a testament to the power of coal. It also offers a cautionary tale to the environment activists who think they are within early reach of victory.

The Capitol Hill facility is no longer needed for electricity. Congress got hooked up to the city's main electrical grid in 1952, and the plant is used only for heat and air conditioning for Congress and nearby official buildings.

Last year, the Democratic speaker, Nancy Pelosi, demanded the plant switch from coal to natural for supplying the house of representatives. But until Thursday Pelosi's counterpart in the Senate, the majority leader, Harry Reid, balked at turning off the last two burners.

The reluctance is in part deference to the oldest Senator, Robert Byrd, a Democrat from the coal mining state of West Virginia, who has had years of experience of protecting his interests.

But it also comes down to cash and influence. The coal industry has waged a ferocious struggle for its survival – as have lobbyists for other polluting industries who have invested millions in trying to block action on climate change.

Opposing energy reform provided employment to 2,340 lobbyists last year – a 300% increase since 2003, according to a report from the Centre for Public Integrity. The report estimated that about 15% of all Washington's lobbyists were now working to try to stop Congress from passing a law putting a cap on carbon.

At the front of the pack is the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an industry-funded organisation, spent nearly $40m last year on television ads and a lobbying effort for coal.

If Joe Lucas, vice-president of the ACCE, thinks coal could be on its way out, he was betraying no sign of it. "There have always been people who have not recognised the necessity of using coal to generate electricity," he said.

"America not using coal would be like Saudi Arabia not using oil. We have more energy in the form of coal than Opec has oil so the thought that the United States is not going to use coal is somewhat without foundation."

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