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CAO to Buy Carbon Offsets for House Today

Every time House officials turn on the heat or crank up the air conditioning, the action could be akin to planting a tree, starting a wind energy project or creating a wetland.

At least that’s the idea of carbon offsets — and it’s an integral part of how the House plans to be carbon-neutral by December 2008. But Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) questioned the validity of the idea Friday in a letter to House Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard, after learning that Beard would announce today the purchase of about $100,000 worth of carbon offsets.

“I have deep concerns about the CAO’s intention to use taxpayer dollars to purchase carbon offset credits,” Ehlers, ranking member of the House Administration Committee, wrote in the letter. “As I have expressed to you directly, using our limited House resources for purchases where the measure of return is so dubious makes me very wary.”

The purchase of carbon offsets is the first step House officials have taken to implement the main components of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) Green the Capitol Initiative. It is supposed to make up for the 24,000 tons of carbon that will be emitted this year to keep House buildings running. That’s down from 91,000 tons, most of which will be cut through other methods.

“For us, this event is a fundamental component of our strategy to make the operation of the House of Representatives carbon- neutral,” Beard said. “That’s why it’s so important.”

Despite Ehlers’ concerns, Beard is not backing down; buying carbon offsets, he said, is the only way to fulfill the Speaker’s pledge of making the House carbon-neutral by the end of the 110th Congress.

“There is a debate about it. I’m not in the business of holding those debates,” he said. “It’s the best that we have and that is what I am going to do.”

The House is buying the offsets on the Chicago Climate Exchange, a market-based system that allows members to buy and sell carbon offsets. The $100,000 will go to those who have accumulated carbon offsets, ostensibly because of a project that helped the environment.

It’s one of three benchmarks for the Green the Capitol Initiative, which also stipulated that the House pay for renewable power for electricity use and that the Capitol Power Plant switch a percentage of its fuel from coal to natural gas.

While those two steps will greatly reduce the House’s carbon emissions, it still leaves 24,000 tons that officials say simply can’t be eliminated so quickly.

But Ehlers thinks the CAO should wait to buy the offsets until the Government Accountability Office completes a report on carbon offset markets — a report that originally was requested by Reps. Tom Davis (R-Va.) and Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) in May because of questions surrounding the Energy Policy Act. Ehlers later asked to be added as a co-requester. It’s expected to be released sometime this spring, plenty of time before the December 2008 deadline, said Salley Collins, Ehlers’ spokeswoman.

“Why not wait? Why not wait until we get a GAO assessment of carbon offsets?” she said, later adding in an e-mail that without the report “there is no guarantee that we’ll have anything to show for this but a few headlines and a bill for $100K, charged to the American Taxpayer.”

Beard argued that the plan has gone through all the required steps. Companies such as Ford and IBM use the Chicago Climate Exchange, he said, and he is confident that the money will go to beneficial projects.

“Why wait?” he said. “Global warming is not going to wait, why should we wait?”

The House Administration Committee approved the plan this summer but didn’t do any extensive research on the subject, said Kyle Anderson, spokesman for Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.). But Brady fully supports the efforts to green the Capitol, he said, and the committee found that Beard’s recommendation for buying carbon offsets supported that goal.

“We have not done any in-depth research into CCX and whether it’s the best place to buy carbon offsets,” Anderson said. But “we know that it’s a generally accepted process.”

Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) has pushed carbon offsets as a solution throughout efforts to green the Capitol. The Chicago Climate Exchange is the most respected organization in the nation for exchanging carbon offsets, he said, because of a system that provides third-party oversight of projects and exchanges.

“We’re going to be moving the whole country in this direction,” he said. “It’s a great feather in the cap of this market.”

After buying the offsets through CCX much like in a stock market, the House will retire all the offsets it buys, said Perry Plumart, deputy director of the Green the Capitol office. And all those offsets will be from domestic sellers, ensuring that the House is specifically supporting greening projects in the United States.

“We’re a political institution,” Kirk said. “It just makes common sense to back American markets first.”

Funding for the Green the Capitol Initiative is tied up in the legislative branch appropriations bill, which hasn’t yet made it to the Senate floor. That budget includes $520,000 to purchase power generated from renewable sources and $2.7 million to switch to natural gas. In fact, the House won’t even be able to pay the $100,000 for the carbon offset exchange until that bill goes through; in the meantime, the Chicago Climate Exchange will give Congress an invoice.

This is simply spending taxpayer money for an unproven result, Collins said. She pointed to a Congressional Research Service memo written in June that outlines the negatives and positives of the carbon offset system. It says the quality of offsets may vary considerably because there are no commonly accepted standards.

But the Department of Energy doesn’t seem to share those concerns. Last week, it lauded Beard for his work on making the House carbon-neutral. The DOE has helped the House throughout its efforts, Beard said.

“We went to them as we were developing our plan,” Beard said. “They really helped us map out our strategy.”