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Capitol Power PlantOn March 2, thousands of people are expected to engage in mass civil disobedience at the coal-fired Capitol Power Plant in Washington, DC. The protest, which is expected to include NASA climate scientist Jim Hanson, author Wendell Barry, and environmentalist Bill McKibben is timed to coincide with the final day of PowerShift09, a four-day "National Youth Summit" that aims to bring 10,000 students to Washington to lobby for action on climate change.

The Capitol Power Plant makes a convenient symbolic target. According to the Wikipedia account:

  • In 2000, the office of the Architect of the Capitol considered eliminating the use of coal at the plant, but was dissuaded by two coal-state senators: Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
  • In 2006, citizens from Capitol Hill, emboldened by the threat of global warming, met with the Architect of the Capitol to discuss ways to make the power plant more environmentally friendly, for example, by switching fuels. They were told that since the plant is owned by Congress, little would change without a Congressional mandate.
  • In 2007, Nancy Pelosi seemed to give such a mandate, announcing a new effort to "green" the entire Capitol complex. But a plan to reduce the Capitol Power Plant's emissions has not emerged, and Pelosi has instead pursued a controversial policy of purchasing carbon offsets from the Chicago Climate Exchange.

Oddly, the Capitol Hill Power Plant doesn't actually generate any electrical power, a function that it ceased to perform in 1952. Since then it has provided the Capitol complex only steam and cooled water. Based on the amount of coal burned at the plant, it produces around 60,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year: about as much CO2 you would generate if you drove a Hummer from Washington DC to Los Angeles and back 20,000 times. That makes the Capitol Power Plant the largest single point source for greenhouse gases in within the District of Columbia. But it is still tiny compared to other coal-burning plants in the national capital region.

For example, according to CGD's Carbon Monitoring for Action (CARMA) database, the Potomac River Power Plant, located just across the river from the Capitol, produces almost thirty times the emissions of the Capitol Power Plant. (Owned by Mirant Corp., the Potomac plant has long been a target of environmental activists because of serious local negative health impacts.) The Robert W. Scherer Power Plant in Juliette, Georgia -- the largest single-point source of carbon dioxide in the United States -- produces more than 450 times the CO2 emissions of the Capitol Power Plant.

Of course, the leaders of the Capitol Hill protest understand the relatively small size of the Capitol Power Plant's emissions. Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature, wrote that the Capitol Power Plant wasn't chosen because it produced a large amount of emissions, but rather "because it's a way to get the conversation started." That conversation is likely to continue. David Wheeler's Another Inconvenient Truth points out that catastrophic climate change can only be averted if the rich world and the developing world both move to rapidly cut emissions. But the developing world, with a huge poverty burden and per capita emissions that are just a fraction of those in the United States and other rich countries, will not act unless the rich world goes first -- and that means action to cut emissions in the United States, where vested interests are working hard to perpetuate business as usual.

The Capitol Power Plant protest, while not the first such action, is likely to be the highest profile civil disobedience on climate yet. Other creative, peaceful acts of civil disobedience will almost certainly follow. As Wheeler wrote last December, "the confrontation between complacent institutions and alarmed citizens is escalating, and threatens to become a collision." When the young people who are now getting ready to head to Washington to take part in PowerShift09 return to their hometowns and campuses next week, CARMA (searchable by zip code) and other public information sources will be ready to help them identify nearby power plants and the firms that own them.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.