Washington (AP) - It was a bold promise: the House would "lead by example" to fight global warming, becoming the first legislative body in the world to zero out its carbon impact on the planet. But the promise may have been too bold.
The House quietly shelved the idea late last month, the word delivered in an e-mail to a couple of reporters. It turned out that the House's goal to become carbon neutral -- by removing as much carbon dioxide from the air as it releases -- could not be guaranteed.
"No one can really tell you if you are truly carbon neutral, and the lack of that standard bothered us," said Jeff Ventura, a spokesman for the House's chief administrative officer.
The House already had spent $89,000 to cancel out 24,000 tons of emissions that it couldn't erase by turning out lights, buying better light bulbs and making the Capitol's power plant burn more natural gas.
The money bought "offsets," which fund projects that reduce greenhouse gases, such as capturing methane from farm manure ponds, that supposedly wouldn't have happened without the investment.
It also bought bragging rights for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other congressional leaders.
"The House must lead by example and it is time for Congress to act on its own carbon footprint," Pelosi said in April 2007, when she announced the "Green the Capitol" initiative. "Today, we announce our intention to operate the House in a carbon-neutral manner at the earliest possible date, with a deadline of the end of this Congress" in December 2008.
But since such carbon markets are unregulated in the United States, it is difficult to prove their environmental benefits. And it is also difficult to know whether the House accurately calculated the amount of carbon it produces.
Still, the initiative reduced the House's carbon emissions by 74 percent by the end of 2008. The savings came from replacing more than 10,000 incandescent bulbs with more efficient compact fluorescent lights, purchasing wind power from the company that provides the House electricity and increasing the share of natural gas used to heat and cool its facilities.
The House's problems foreshadow what's ahead as Congress crafts national legislation that will limit emissions of the gases blamed for global warming. One key question is whether the legislation will allow companies looking to meet emissions targets to buy offsets as the House did, and what types of projects could generate offsets to be sold on the market.
Pelosi, who hopes to have a bill in the House by summer, hopes legislation will clear things up so the House potentially could purchase offsets again in the future.
"It's now clear that there needs to be consistency across the board in the offsets market," said Drew Hammill, Pelosi's spokesman.
Meanwhile, the House's failed experiment has become a leading example for critics of carbon offsets.
In a hearing last week on the role of carbon offsets in future climate legislation, Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, couldn't resist a mention.
"I'm sure you know that the congressional purchase of offsets that Speaker Pelosi initiated several years ago has been suspended for the very reason that they can't guarantee that the offsets are really what they appear to be," Barton said.
The House in the meantime is stuck with reducing the gases blamed for global warming the old-fashioned way: actually cutting pollution.
But that won't be able to zero out emissions.
"Any carbon we reduce is better than where were at. We are going to do the best we can do," said Ventura. "It is a lot more than complicated and ambitious than people think it is."
"No one can really tell you if you are truly carbon neutral, and the lack of that standard bothered us," said Jeff Ventura, a spokesman for the House of Representative's chief administrative officer.