Protestors reignite dispute over Capitol Power Plant

A coalition of advocacy groups led by veteran environmental activists are planning a massive sit-in on Capitol Hill next month to protest the continued burning of coal at an aging plant owned by the federal government.

More than 40 advocacy groups have signed onto the cause, teaming up with environmental heavy-hitters such as NASA climatologist James Hansen, who has been warning Congress about global warming for more than 20 years, and activist and author Bill McKibben.

"It's a power plant that's in Congress' back yard operated by them," said Matt Leonard of Greenpeace, who is helping organize the March 2 sit-in. "This is an iconic symbol of the political stranglehold that coal has."

How to deal with the 98-year-old Capitol Power Plant, which sits three blocks south of the House office buildings, has been a thorny issue for years within Congress. Environmentalists and Washington, D.C., residents have continually called for the plant to stop burning the fossil fuel while lawmakers from coal-producing states have fought to symbolically keep the plant running.

Protesters are hoping Congress will set an example for the country by removing coal from the Capitol Power Plant.


"Coal is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country and that must change," Hansen said in a statement. "The world is waiting for the Obama administration and Congress to lead the way forward on this defining issue of our time. They need to start by getting coal out of Congress."

Attempts to cut coal face high costs, Senate opposition

Under the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) Green the Capitol initiative, the House of Representatives has shifted from burning coal to burning natural gas for the percentage of hot and cool air that the House uses.

"They're protesting coal in the power plant but we -- the House -- have eliminated the coal for our mix," said Jeff Ventura, director of communications for House Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard.

The Senate Rules Committee held a hearing last June about the possibility of reducing the use of coal even further, but the Senate has not yet eliminated the fossil fuel from the mix (E&E Daily, June 16, 2008).

Possible hurdles to halting coal burning at the plant include high costs and opposition from coal-state lawmakers who have staunchly opposed similar measures in the past. The Capitol Power Plant would need a $7 million upgrade to allow it to burn more natural gas in place of coal, the acting architect of the Capitol told a Senate panel in June.

Plans to eliminate coal from the plant have also come under fire from coal state senators including Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

"Sen. Byrd has been a supporter of the use of coal at the Capitol Hill power plant, but has also been an advocate of efforts to 'green' the Capitol campus," spokesman Jesse Jacobs said in an e-mail. Byrd has pushed to install carbon capture and storage technologies at the power plant, but a study last year determined that the plant was not suitable for such technology because of its location, Jacobs said.

Activists plan to 'draw a line in the sand' against coal

The protesters are optimistic that the Obama administration will listen to their pleas to end the use of coal at the Capitol and issue a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants nationwide.

"This demonstration marks the beginning of a sustained effort to draw a line in the sand against this dirty and dangerous fuel," Leonard said.

"We have a window of opportunity with a new administration that promises to act, but it's up to social movements to ensure that the these promises are followed through upon, and that they are of a measure adequate to solve the problems presented by global warming and our energy crises," Leonard added.

But National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich said the movement to eliminate coal from the nation's fuel mix could hurt consumers by escalating costs in the time of a deepening economic crisis. "Any attempt at civil disobedience, I think, will only call attention to how irresponsible this movement is at a time when Americans are obviously concerned about keeping their households from flying apart," he said.

"If the idea is to try to meet the nation's energy needs more responsibly, which we would certainly agree with, then the way to do this needs to be through technologies that make these fuels cleaner, not to take these fuels off the table," Popovich added.

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