House abandons rip-offset purchase. Now can it abandon them in a climate bill?

While I am not one to say “I told you so” [cough, cough], what else is the proper response to today’s Washington Post story by David Fahrenthold: House Is Abandoning Carbon Neutral Plan: Move Highlights Congress’s Green Struggle“:

The U.S. House of Representatives has abandoned a plan to make its offices “carbon neutral,” a sign that Congress is wrestling with a pledge to become more green even as it crafts sweeping legislation on climate change.

The promise that the House would effectively reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to zero was a centerpiece of the Green the Capitol program in which the new Democratic leadership sought to use Capitol Hill as a kind of a national demonstration project.

But last week, a spokesman for the House’s chief administrative officer said the chamber’s leadership had dropped an essential part of the plan, the purchase of “carbon offsets” to cancel out emissions from its buildings.

I had been quoted criticizing the rip-offset purchase, especially from the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX), in a Fahrenthold piece from a year ago (see House carbon offsets “a waste of taxpayer money”).

So I applaud the House decision, as I told Fahrenthold in an interview he didn’t use [Note to self: Get over it!]. I wouldn’t, however, frame it the way he did in the piece.

I don’t see how abandoning a bad idea “highlights Congress’s Green Struggle.” I also don’t see how the relatively pointless purchase of rip-offsets, especially from the CCX, could be called the centerpiece of a “Green the Capitol … national demonstration project.”

After all, you don’t need the House of Representatives to demonstrate to anybody how to buy rip-offsets. Quite the reverse, you need them to demonstrate that buying rip-offsets just doesn’t make economic or environmental sense.

Indeed, the 2008 story tracked down the rip-offset projects the taxpayer money went to and showed how dubious they were. It also quoted the amazing words of CCX CEO Richard Sandor:

It basically rewards people for having done things that had environmental good in the past and incentivizes people to do things that have environmental good in the future.

Rewarding people for past environmental behavior may be a great thing — “pin a rose on them,” as my mother says — but it ain’t offsetting pollution. It is rip-offsetting it.

So kudos to the House for this move.

Now that the House leadership seems to understand what a pointless investment rip-offsets are, they need to make sure that rip-offsets don’t become the basis of the big climate bill leaders are starting to put together (see “You can call a rip-offset a CDM project, but it’s still a rip-offset“).

Even Congress’s own Government Accountability Office — hardly a bastion of progressive eco-analysis — has studied them and concluded “The use of carbon offsets in a cap-and-trade system can undermine the system’s integrity.”

You don’t want to end up with — and you certainly don’t want to start with — the USCAP proposal (see “NRDC and EDF endorse the weak, coal-friendly, rip-offset-heavy USCAP climate plan“). Same for Boxer-Lieberman-Warner (Boxer bill update: Probably no U.S. CO2 emissions cut until after 2025).

So the big question now is, can the House preach what it practices?

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13 Responses to House abandons rip-offset purchase. Now can it abandon them in a climate bill?

  1. charlie says:

    Joe, wouldn’t the most efficient thing to do with the Capital power plant is to turn it into a natural gas cogeneration facility — producing both heat and electricity. I understand that you can use them for cooling as well but that may be too much.

  2. Richard Pauli says:

    The real reason they abandoned the purchase was they could not find a bank that would be around long enough. (half joking)

  3. Sasparilla says:

    I suppose it would be too much hoping the congress ignores the president and goes for a revenue neutral/refunded carbon tax wouldn’t it? Probably not politically possible, I suppose just because of the name.

    Seems like the rip offset question will be the next big hurdle as our cap and trade proposals are strung together in the house and senate. Keeping my fingers crossed – things have been going very well so far this year.

  4. Jim Bullis says:

    Cheers for charlie. We need to start to get it that fiddling around with money games will not get anything much accomplished; instead it only enables a pretense of progress leading to complacency. Technically meaningful solutions exist and need to be worked out by those who are equipped to do so. Yes, air conditioning is entirely feasible using large scale absorption coolers. Cogeneration is a very good way to use natural gas in a way that makes it almost competitive with coal as an energy source for electrical power generation. Since the otherwise wasted heat would not be thrown away electric generation can be almost 100% efficient. With reasonably competent planning, the simple act of locating the next-to-be-built generating plant as needed to enable it as a cogeneration facility would make this a nearly zero cost capital expenditure. With an affordable and politically possible small tax on coal usage, we could get going on CO2 reduction with this as an example.

  5. Jim Bullis says:

    More cheers for charlie:

    After reading the linked Wash Post article the absurdity of the endless talk about “carbon credits” is much highlighted.

    The existing heating plant is already in place so much of the plumbing for a cogeneration facility is already paid for, so a real hardware improvement is staring Congress in the face.

    But it is a lot more fun for politicians to fiddle with regulations and taxes while coal burns.

    And cheers for Joe Romm’s mom for her “pin a rose on them” comment, that seems to recognize the true value of some of this gamesmanship.

  6. charlie says:

    err, thanks. I was trying to say that AC may not be possible in the context of the Congressional facility — where it would be supremely uneconomical to retrofit all those offices.

  7. ecostew says:

    None for biochar based on peer-reviewed science.

  8. Climateer says:

    My favorite Sandor quote:
    “…Mr. Sandor says the exchange’s main goal is to help develop a commodity that has financial value under any possible future U.S. law that to regulates greenhouse-gas emissions. The debate over whether or not a polluter would have cut its greenhouse-gas emissions without the financial incentive of credit sales is “quite interesting, but that’s not my business,” Mr. Sandor says. “I’m running a for-profit company.”…”
    -Wall Street Journal, Oct. 20, ’08

  9. David B. Benson says:

    ecostew — Completely wrong about that.

  10. Steve H says:

    Is it an offset for someone to buy me a new car so I’ll give up my ’97 Explorer? Because if someone has some carbon burning a hole in their pocket, I’ve had my eye on forest green escape hybrid (but I’ll accept another corolla, or one of them new insights with the feedback displays.)

    Regarding Congressional offices, perhaps they should, if they haven’t already, start to print less paper. The times that I have written my Senate folk, I have received in response printouts of the legislation in question. Thanks, an email or phone call would have sufficed. Looking back, though, a copy of the Contract with America has served me well as a reminder of what I’m fighting against.

  11. kojiro vance says:

    Joe – I agree with you on this one. Offsets are too easy to game.

    Would also agree that it is silly for the capital to be burning coal. You don’t need the greenhouse gas argument, just the PM 2.5 and other listed pollutants is bad enough. Coal fired heating plants don’t belong in densely populated areas.

    Wht they really need is a gasifier that runs on all the paper and other waste the capital generates. turn a turbine to make power and then use the waste steam for both heating and cooling and then you can have something that runs 80% efficient or so!

    Heard the snow forecasts for tomorrow. Was Gore planning to show up?

  12. NFJM says:


    As other developed countries, the US will have an absolute economy-wide emission cap for greenhouse gases. This cap will be set compared to a year of verified emissions in the past according to a new international climate agreement. Different baseline years for these verified past emissions such as 1990, 2000 and 2005 have been proposed. This means that the future emission cap will be expressed as a reduction in GHG emissions compared to this baseline year. So what happens in this case if you purchase on a voluntary basis carbon offsets?

    Case 1: Your project is truly additional and would not have happened without additional carbon financing:

    • Thanks, you are taking measures to reduce GHG emissions, however the future US emission cap will not be any lower because of you. This means: you have given away an economic gift to entities which will be affected by the cap and trade as thanks to you they will not need to reduce their emissions as much…. Economic effect: transfer of value – Environmental effect:at best none (assuming you are not diverting the money for real emission reductions)

    Case2: Your project is not additional… this means that it would have happened anyway whether with or without this additional carbon financing. Just looking at the prices per tonne of carbon at the CCX, I have a really hard believing such a small change in the profitability of your project will make a difference. You might end up with a return rat on your investment of 7.1% instead of 7%.


    The only way of circumventing this problem is to create a federal office which ensures that voluntary measures and efforts are truly additional and are not just a gift from an honest individual entity to the whole rest of the US economy.
    In the case of emission offsets, this should take the form of the tightening from the emission cap by the destruction of emission allowance that would otherwise have been released (either in a form of a free allowance or an auctioned allowance.
    In the case of renewable electricity, this would take the form of either 1)an increase of “Renewable Electricity Certificate” utilities need to own 2) the retirement of an existing certificate 3) The generation of renewable electricity without the addition of such a certificate on the market.

    In short: this is the equivalent of burning your dollar bills which increase the value of the dollar bills in the rest of the economy as their relative value increase.


    Whether we like it or not, most investments in energy infrastructures are calculated over a period of 20 to 40 years. This means that there is a urgency in avoiding the “carbon lock in” or investments in low efficient in carbon intensive solutions in developed countries. A carbon heavy investment now becomes a liability to future generations. There is right now a need to help these countries to avoid this carbon heavy path.
    Such a green development help should however be additional to the national commitment and NOT replace it.

    Furthermore, such an emission reduction help should not be used by companies as a compliance tool for cap and trade system:

    • The sole interest of a private run company is the legal compliance (in emission markets) at the lowest possible price, no matter what the quality of the offset is.

    • There is a need for developed countries to be the pioneers of a low carbon economy in the world as these countries are still the trendsetters.

    By the way, international offsets in the Kyoto process were originally seen as an additional effort from developed countries, not as a tool to comply with the own domestic target.

  13. Three cheers for killing cap and trade and carbon offsets. Offsets are a ruse and cap tax and dividend is the only way to go, all rest fluff. Much work to do for Copenhagen and many more actions need to take place all over the country for the political agenda to address 80% renewable energy use by 2015.
    I also applaud your efforts to take on the Conservative Right’s Obstructionist agenda. Without a push back on this ol’ ideology agenda they will gladly commit “climacide” to fulfill their prophesy. Their agenda has already destroyed the economy and now the biosphere is not far behind unless they are stopped and revealed for what they are sociopaths.