Coal Tattoo

Coal and our Capitol


Citizens and activists from around the country are planning to descend on Washington Monday for what organizers hope is a huge protest against the burning of coal to fire an antiquated power plant that generates steam and chilled water to heat and cool the Capitol building. (The Capitol buys its electricity from Pepco).

The protest is being billed as:

…A multi-generational act of civil disobedience at the Capitol Power Plant — a plant that powers Congress with dirty energy and symbolizes a past that cannot be our future. Let’s use this as a rallying cry for a clean energy economy that will protect the health of our families, our climate, and our future.

On their website’s FAQ section, under the heading “Why this Action? Why Now?” the organizers explain:

It’s time to take a stand on global warming. For more than 30 years, scientists, environmentalists, and Americans from all walks of life have urged leaders to take action to prevent a climate catastrophe. Yet even with the impacts of global warming mounting–droughts and wildfires in the West and Southeast; hurricanes in the Gulf; record floods year after year in the Heartland; deadly heat waves in the Northeast; and the spiraling cost of it all—our leaders have failed to take the action so urgently needed. Now we are running out of time. The Bush administration has left our world with precious little time to avert the most catastrophic impacts of the climate crisis.

While the Obama administration is a welcome change from the past 8 years, we also recognize that powerful interests are working hard to ensure that their profits continue to come before climate solutions. Even in the hopes that a new administration and Congress will prioritize climate concerns – without a powerful grassroots movement, we can expect compromises and half-measures that our communities and climate cannot afford. We aim to help build upon the grassroots movement for climate justice and push the scales of power back towards community and ecological sustainability.

On Thursday, it might have seemed like the reason for the protest — at least the direct action on the Capitol power plant — went away. Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid issued a letter that protesters said “promised … to switch the Capitol power plant off coal.”

Well, not exactly…

Their letter, posted on Speaker Pelosi’s blog, actually says:

The plant remains an important component of the facilities master plan and the future of the Capitol complex, and we know your office has taken steps to make the plant cleaner and more efficient. While your progress has been noteworthy, more must be done to dramatically reduce plant emissions and the CPP’s impact. Since there are not projected to be any economical or feasible technologies to reduce coal-burning emissions soon, there are several steps you should take in the short term to reduce the amount of coal burned at the plant while preparing for a conversion to cleaner burning natural gas.

…We are also interested in identifying and supporting funding to retrofit CPP if necessary so that it can operate on 100 percent natural gas. Unfortunately, our staff has received conflicting information and cost estimates on what would actually be required to operate the CPP year-round with exclusively natural gas. If a retrofit of two remaining boilers is indeed required, then we encourage you to develop realistic budget numbers to accomplish the retrofit expeditiously including any costs for the purchase of additional quantities of natural gas. In your budget analysis, it is important to take into account that time is of the essence for converting the fuel of the CPP. Therefore it is our desire that your approach focus on retrofitting at least one of the coal boilers as early as this summer, and the remaining boiler by the end of the year.

Now, I don’t claim to be some sort of expert on how decisions are made about this matter…but past experience tells us all that a switch away from coal at the Capitol power plant is symbolic for both sides of the coal debate.

byrd_150.jpgAnd expect none other than Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., to be lined up on the other side from the protesters. He’ll probably have a little help from Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The last time this fuel switch idea got going, back in 2000, Byrd and McConnell just started taking a really close look at the Capitol architect’s budget … and all of a sudden the project went away.

When Pelosi floated the switch from coal again two years ago — during a “Green the Capitol” event on Earth Day no less — a Byrd spokeswoman told The Washington Post the senator would fight coal’s fight again:

As we break the chains of foreign oil, our reliance on resources that we have here at home will only expand. Technologies are available today that can burn coal more cleanly and more efficiently.

That’s not to say that switching the Capitol power plant away from coal isn’t a pretty decent idea.

The Governmental Accountability Project has estimated that fuel switching could cost between $1.0 and $1.8 million a year in additional fuel costs. But as Pelosi and Reid point out:

The switch to natural gas will allow the CPP to dramatically reduce carbon and criteria pollutant emissions, eliminating more than 95 percent of sulfur oxides and at least 50 percent of carbon monoxide. The conversion will also reduce the cost of storing and transporting coal as well as the costs associated with cleaning up the fly ash and waste. Eliminating coal from the fuel mixture should also assist the City of Washington, D.C., in meeting and complying with national air quality standards, and demonstrate that Congress can be a good and conscientious neighbor by mitigating health concerns for residents and workers around Capitol Hill.

And the Monday protest has plenty of star power, both in terms of big thinkers and celebrity names.

James Hansen, the renowned climate scientist, is promoting the event with a YouTube video:

The list of endorsements listed on the event’s website includes Daryl Hannah, Kathy Mattea, Martin Sheen, and the site also includes a video from Susan Sarandon.


And two of the leading promoters are authors Wendell Berry and Bill McKibben. Berry and McKibben had this to say about the protest and about the coal industry in general:

The industry claim that there is something called “clean coal” is, put simply, a lie. But it’s a lie told with tens of millions of dollars, which we do not have. We have our bodies, and we are willing mckibben.jpgto use them to make our point. We don’t come to such a step lightly. We have written and testified and organized politically to make this point for many years, and while in recent months there has been real progress against new coal-fired power plants, the daily business of providing half our electricity from coal continues unabated. It’s time to make clear that we can’t safely run this planet on coal at all.

With any luck, this will be the largest such protest yet, large enough that it may provide a real spark. If you want to participate with us, you need to go through a short course of non-violence training. This will be, to the extent it depends on us, an entirely peaceful demonstration, carried out in a spirit of hope and not rancor. We will be there in our dress clothes, and ask the same of you. There will be young people, people from faith communities, people from the coal fields of Appalachia, and from the neighborhoods in Washington that get to breathe the smoke from the plant.

We will cross the legal boundary of the power plant, and we expect to be arrested. After that we have no certainty what will happen, but lawyers and such will be on hand. Our goal is not to shut the plant down for the day — it is but one of many, and anyway its operation for a day is not the point. The worldwide daily reliance on coal is the danger; this is one small step to raise awareness of that ruinous habit and hence help to break it.