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More telework, less travel: What new pollution goals mean for feds

Jul. 26, 2010 - 06:00AM   |  
By TIM KAUFFMAN   |   Comments
Commuters on Interstate 66 in Fairfax, Va., drive under an Ozone alert. Fairfax is about 22 miles outside Washington, D.C.
Commuters on Interstate 66 in Fairfax, Va., drive under an Ozone alert. Fairfax is about 22 miles outside Washington, D.C. (AFP)

Employees will fly to business meetings less frequently, work from home more often and recycle more of their trash as federal agencies strive to shrink their carbon footprints.

The government last week pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions from indirect sources such as employee travel and waste disposal by 13 percent by 2020, compared with a 2008 baseline of 16.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

The new target expands on a January pledge to cut by 28 percent by 2020 the emissions agencies directly produce or purchase, chiefly the energy used in federal facilities and vehicles.

The administration also has released draft guidance for how agencies should account for and report emissions from both direct and indirect activities. Those inventories, due in January, will set the benchmarks against which agencies will measure their progress in meeting reduction targets.

Agencies initially are looking at three sources of indirect emissions: employee travel, emissions from contracted waste disposal and the electricity that's lost in transit from power plants to agency offices. Of those three, employee travel is the largest contributor to the carbon footprint, said Michelle Moore, the White House's federal environmental executive.

To curb those emissions, agencies will need to expand the use of Web-based video conferences, encourage more employees to work from home or to carpool to work, and locate offices closer to mass transit when they build new facilities or sign new leases.

"There are a lot of different ways agencies are going to be able to meet their goals," Moore said. "It's really about what agencies can do to support the employees in this effort."

Still, employee travel could be one of the most challenging areas to address. More than 80 percent of the government's 2.1 million civilian employees work outside the nation's capital, often in less urban settings where public transportation options are more limited. These employees also typically have less opportunity to telecommute because they're treating wounded veterans, fighting forest fires or explaining federal benefits to farmers and retirees.

"We're going to have agencies that have missions that are tied to being out in the field with their stakeholders. You may see lower reductions in indirect emissions associated with travel [at those agencies] than an agency that may be more administratively based and have more flexibility to integrate these kinds of new technologies into their operations," Moore said.

The Veterans Affairs Department is projecting a "marginal, if any," reduction in emissions associated with employee travel because the department is on a steady growth spurt, said C.J. Cordova, director of VA's green management program service. VA has set a 10 percent reduction goal for indirect emissions.

VA's work force has increased 35 percent since 2000 and now tops 271,000. Most of those employees are nurses, doctors and other health care providers who can't work from home, giving VA fewer options to cut emissions.

"The challenge is the anticipated growth in the work force," Cordova said. "If you're increasing employees and you're increasing the number of buildings, you're increasing commutes," she said.

Still, VA has formed a working group to explore options for cutting travel-related emissions, she said.

The Agriculture Department set a 7 percent goal for reducing its indirect emissions overall, lower than the governmentwide average, largely because of the challenges in changing employee commuting and traveling practices, said Jeff Goodman, chief of Agriculture's environmental management division.

Nearly 90 percent of Agriculture's indirect emissions stem from employee travel and business commuting, and nearly 95 percent of its employees work outside the nation's capital mostly in rural locations lacking mass transit and with only a handful of other employees nearby.

As a result, Agriculture is focusing most of its efforts at cutting travel for employees located in major regional centers, Goodman said.

Employees involved in administrative or management tasks will be asked to work from home more often. Meanwhile, Agriculture will curb the practice of flying managers to Washington to discuss management strategies.

"We think we can be a little bit more aggressive on the business side of it with video conferencing, virtual meetings," Goodman said.

Likewise, the Labor Department plans to use more online videoconferencing, consider allowing more employees to work from home or alternative sites closer to their homes and encourage more employees to use public transit where available, said Charlotte Hayes, deputy assistant secretary for policy in Labor's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Administration and Management. Labor overall set a 23.3 percent reduction in indirect emissions.

Defense Department employees driving to and from work generate 43 percent of the department's total indirect emissions being tracked, said Bill Van Houten, assistant director of environmental management at the Pentagon.

Defense plans to cut commuting emissions 7 percent by 2020, largely by increasing teleworking, Van Houten said. Defense overall has set a 13.5 percent reduction goal for its indirect emissions.

Other areas targeted

One of the most aggressive areas agencies hope to tackle relates to contracted waste disposal, primarily diverting trash from landfills.

The executive order President Obama issued in October establishing the greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategy also instructed agencies to divert half of their solid waste from landfills by 2015. In doing so, agencies expect to reap significant reductions in their emissions.

Agriculture, for instance, expects to cut emissions from waste disposal by 26 percent by 2020, compared with a 5 percent reduction in travel-related emissions.

Agriculture has set up bins in its Washington headquarters offices for recycling bottles, cans and batteries; purchased cardboard shredders to facilitate recycling of large boxes; and begun composting food waste in its cafeteria. The department plans to expand those efforts to other locations to reach its 26 percent target, Goodman said.

Likewise, agencies forecasting significant reductions in energy consumed in their facilities will benefit from lower emissions from power that's lost being transmitted from power plants to buildings. Defense, for instance, will cut transmission-related emissions by nearly 37 percent because of its aggressive energy reduction goals.

Guesstimating emissions

Calculating the baseline indirect emissions numbers was difficult, especially when trying to estimate emissions from employee travel to and from work, officials at various agencies said.

Agencies largely relied on commuting surveys for U.S. workers and those in the greater Washington area to determine average miles traveled by employees each day to and from work, then applied those averages to their own employees.

Agriculture intended to survey some of its employees to determine actual commuting patterns, but that effort was scuttled after an employee union raised privacy concerns, Goodman said. Agriculture's most scientific exercise was to tally cars parked outside some of its larger facilities, noting how many cars were family sedans versus sports utility vehicles or other models.

Labor didn't even attempt to survey its employees since the department would still have to guesstimate commutes for employees who failed to respond, Hayes said. Labor researched which employees received transit subsidies and removed them from the calculation of commutes made by personal car.

Still, Hayes and others said they made the best of the data they had and will improve on the calculations as better data becomes available.

"The perfect should not stand in the way of the good, and you have to start somewhere," Hayes said.

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