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Growing agencies struggle to shrink carbon footprints

Sep. 11, 2010 - 06:00AM   |  
By ANDY MEDICI   |   Comments
The Veterans Affairs Department says its effort to employ cutting-edge health care capabilities requires greater use of energy-intensive equipment and processes  a mission that makes it difficult to set high emission reduction targets. Above, VA physical therapist Nicole Bormann, left, works with Iraq war veteran Robert Wake at the VA Medical Center in St. Louis in August 2009.
The Veterans Affairs Department says its effort to employ cutting-edge health care capabilities requires greater use of energy-intensive equipment and processes a mission that makes it difficult to set high emission reduction targets. Above, VA physical therapist Nicole Bormann, left, works with Iraq war veteran Robert Wake at the VA Medical Center in St. Louis in August 2009. (Getty Images file photo)

Many agencies tasked with reducing their greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade are challenged with balancing environmental sustainability and expanding missions and infrastructure, according to sustainability plans released last week by 56 agencies.

Agencies are required by an October 2009 executive order to set specific targets for reducing their direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, as compared with a 2008 baseline. The White House has pledged that the government overall will reduce direct emissions such as those generated by federal cars and buildings by 28 percent. Indirect emissions such as those caused by employee business travel and commuting to work must be cut 13 percent.

The reports also outline agencies' plans for employing more efficient water facilities and renewable energy sources.

Many of the reports included specific goals for employee travel and building sustainable facilities.

The Interior Department, which manages 20 percent of the land in the U.S., proposes to increase its use of renewable energies and to purchase energy-efficient products.

It plans to reduce direct emissions by 20 percent and indirect emissions by 9 percent. The department said it is soliciting employee ideas on how to further reduce its emissions.

But Interior pointed out that the broad scope of its operations, which includes the leasing of public lands for oil and gas exploration, makes greenhouse gas reductions a challenge and it must make decisions based on a variety of factors, including sustainability, cost and return to taxpayers.

The Veterans Affairs Department said its effort to employ cutting-edge health care capabilities requires greater use of energy-intensive equipment and processes. And procedures to control infections, maintain sterilized environments and reuse water present challenges in its ability to reduce energy and water use. Also, many VA services are delivered to veterans in their homes, minimizing the amount of travel that the department could reduce.

The Justice Department noted the difficulty it expects to have in reducing emissions because of its plans to build new prisons. "Significant GHG emission reductions on an absolute basis would be nearly impossible for DOJ to achieve, due to the substantial and necessary increase anticipated in its facility footprint," the department's report said.

Its target reduction of 16.4 percent for direct emissions and 3.8 percent for indirect emissions should take into account actions it took from 2003 to 2008 to reduce energy intensity by 22.7 percent, it argued.

The Treasury Department said its ability to reduce direct emissions by 33 percent and indirect emissions by 11 percent will be challenged by the lack of alternative fuel stations across the country, as well as the challenge of handling furnace shutdowns at its Denver Mint as it tries to transition to a four-day work week.

In addition, it faces strict congressional mandates concerning which raw materials it uses in manufacturing paper money and coins mandates that limit Treasury's ability to explore more sustainable supplies for making money.

More teleworking

To reduce their indirect greenhouse gas emissions, many departments said they would increase employee teleworking, though few offered specific targets.

One exception was the Defense Department, which aims to reduce direct emissions by 34 percent and indirect emissions by 13.5 percent by 2020. It said it will have 30 percent of its eligible employees telework at least once a week, and that it will divert 50 percent of its waste away from landfills through recycling and conservation.

Many large agencies pledged to buy more energy-efficient supplies and technology, and to press vendors to employ sustainable practices. Most reports had sections dedicated to sustainable acquisition and promoting eco-friendly supply chains.

VA said it will consider sustainability and energy efficiency in all its purchases.

Likewise, the General Services Administration plans to use its purchasing power to "green the supply chain" by buying energy-efficient products and creating a more robust federal market for sustainability practices by leveraging its ownership of large numbers of federal facilities.

GSA also is pressing vendors to offer incentives to their suppliers to use environmentally sustainable supplies.

"Over the next two years, GSA is looking to find ways to incentivize not require companies to measure and report their GHG emissions and initiate a process by which contracting advantages could be given to companies that conduct greenhouse gas inventories," the report said.

Small agencies' burden

Many smaller agencies said they lack the ability larger agencies have in reducing significantly their greenhouse gas emissions. For example, the National Endowment for the Humanities noted it is limited in how much it can cut because it leases space within a GSA building and it already has 85 percent of its 175-person work force using mass transit to get to work. It vowed to cut back on employee travel wherever possible.

Likewise, the National Mediation Board said it leases space from GSA and has no fleet of vehicles to operate. It said 39 of its 51 employees use mass transit. Still, it promised to reduce emissions wherever possible.

GSA said in its plan that not only can it reduce its own emissions, it can help reduce the emissions of other agencies through building upgrades and new energy conservation programs.

"What we are seeing, for the first time in federal government," said GSA Administrator Martha Johnson, "is a coordinated approach that brings all of the relevant players to the table, and with our own plan, we have set forth a comprehensive approach that addresses all aspects where we can make a real difference."

GSA pledged a 28 percent reduction in direct emissions and a 44 percent reduction in indirect emissions.

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