A rare March snowstorm on Monday did not stop several thousand global-warming protesters from marching on the Capitol Power Plant (CPP), where they called for an end to coal-burning.
Draped in winter jackets, hats and scarves on an unseasonably cold day, protesters made their way from the park behind the Rayburn House Office Building to the power plant, with some carrying signs demanding “Green Jobs Now.”
Hundreds of U.S. Capitol Police officers lined the streets and guarded the plant from second-level outdoor catwalks.
No arrests had been made as of press time, despite preparations by protest organizers, who supplied demonstrators with a phone number for legal assistance, which most wrote in permanent marker on their bodies.
“It appears that our sheer numbers have overwhelmed the police presence and that no arrests are going to be made,” said Nell Greenberg, a spokeswoman for National Climate Action. “And we feel we came and got our message across effectively.”
The protest was organized by Greenpeace, the Rainforest Action Network and other environmental groups, which have battled lawmakers from coal-producing states, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.).
The demonstration follows the decision last week by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who called for the plant to shift to more environmentally friendly natural gas. Pelosi canceled her scheduled appearance because of the weather.
A counter-protest by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), supporters of coal-burning technology, was held across the street from the plant. And before the anti-coal protesters joined them, about two dozen stood holding signs reading, “Celebrate Coal.”
One pro-coal protester went so far as to stick a bumper sticker that read “Question Al Gore’s Authority” on the windshield of a Greenpeace bus containing solar-powered generators for the loudspeaker system.
“If the anti-coal zealots are allowed to prevail politically, electric rates will skyrocket for most Americans and many jobs will be lost in energy-intensive industries as a result of higher power prices,” said Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at CEI.
But big energy lobbyists like the National Mining Association said they had no problem with the CPP discontinuing its use of coal and switching to total natural-gas consumption.
“There’s a limited amount of coal being used [at the CPP] now, and so it’s in a special class all itself,” said Carol Raulston, a spokesman for the group. “Congress is trying to step up to its responsibilities and put in modern emissions control, and if they can’t put on what’s good for coal then they may have to look for other things.”
The CPP uses a combination of fuel, natural gas and coal to create steam energy to heat and cool the Capitol and the House and Senate office buildings. The power plant is currently the largest source of pollution in Washington.
Out of seven boilers that the CPP uses to create steam energy, only two still use coal. And though Pelosi and Reid’s letter to the Architect of the Capitol (AoC) did not cite a specific cost for switching the two boilers to operate entirely on natural gas, an AoC study from 2008 estimated the retrofitting would cost about $7 million.
But the Democratic leaders said that natural gas was the best option for reducing the plant’s harmful environmental effects, adding that clean-coal equipment could not be considered as an alternative because the technology had not been fully developed.
Still, while Monday’s anti-coal protesters chanted, “Clean coal is a dirty lie,” some Democrats in Congress think the idea is worth exploring as an option.
“It is regrettable that over the past three decades ... we were not able to do more to invest in the necessary resources into developing clean-coal technologies,” Byrd said in a statement. He’s a longtime supporter of coal-burning at the CPP.
Some Republicans also criticized the decision by Democratic leaders.
“I am disappointed in the House Speaker and Senate majority leader’s seemingly rash decision to dismiss the use of clean-coal technology at the Capitol Power Plant,” said Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), ranking member of the House Administration Committee, in a statement.
“It is disheartening that Congress is unwilling to explore the use of clean coal, utilizing one of this nation’s most abundant resources, during this economic downturn.”
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