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The struggle to shrink carbon footprints

Jun. 24, 2012 - 12:44PM   |  
By ANDY MEDICI   |   Comments
The Energy Department has employed a vast fleet of diesel-burning specialized vehicles to clean up a 586-mile stretch of contaminated land near Hanford, Wash., where nine old nuclear reactors and processing facilities once operated.
The Energy Department has employed a vast fleet of diesel-burning specialized vehicles to clean up a 586-mile stretch of contaminated land near Hanford, Wash., where nine old nuclear reactors and processing facilities once operated. (Energy Department)

The White House is pressing agencies to reduce their carbon footprints — but for some agencies, the mission gets in the way.

The Energy Department, for instance, employs a vast fleet of diesel-burning dump trucks, earth movers and other specialized vehicles to clean up a 586-mile stretch of contaminated land near Hanford, Wash., where nine old nuclear reactors and processing facilities once operated.

In 2007, that cleanup effort consumed 9,000 gallons of diesel fuel. In 2010, as DoE accelerated the cleanup, that figure exploded to 500,000 gallons, causing the department to fall well short of its green government goals.

Likewise, the Defense Department is falling short of goals to cut carbon emissions — and may continue to in the future — as U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down and deployed troops and their equipment return to U.S. bases. New scorecards released by the Office of Management and Budget show that many large agencies are falling short of their goals to cut carbon emissions.

Various factors are at play, including expanding operations, tight budgets and delayed returns on long-term energy investments. Other agencies that failed to meet their emission reduction goals include:

• The Army Corps of Engineers, which saw a 3.6 percent increase in direct emissions in fiscal 2011. Its goal was a 4.5 percent reduction.

• The Housing and Urban Development Department, which saw its indirect emissions increase by 28.4 percent in fiscal 2011. Its goal was to maintain its fiscal 2010 levels.

• The Veterans Affairs Department saw a 21.1 increase in its indirect emissions in fiscal 2011. Its goal was a 1.0 percent reduction.

A 2009 executive order requires agencies by 2020 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions governmentwide by 28 percent from a 2008 baseline. Indirect emissions — such as those caused by employee business travel, contractor operations and employees commuting to work — must be cut 13 percent. Emissions produced by weapons systems, law enforcement activities or overseas activities are exempted from the reduction goals.

The Energy Department planned on achieving a 14.0 percent reduction in fiscal 2011 but only reached 12.2 percent, according to the new OMB scorecards. Energy Department spokeswoman Niketa Kumar said the scorecard shows the agency is making progress but has more to do.

The agency is working to make its buildings more energy efficient — but 25 percent of its facilities are more than 50 years old, according to the Energy Department.

The Defense Department — which is responsible for more than half of all government emissions — also failed to meet the reduction goal. DoD set a goal to reduce emissions by 5.0 percent in 2011, but achieved a 4.4 percent reduction.

DoD is working to reduce its carbon footprint, but its investments in reducing its energy use at its installations may take a few years to show results, according to the department.

Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said in a news release that agencies must stay focused to meet sustainability mandates.

“These scorecards provide agencies with a useful tool to keep focused on saving billions in energy costs over the next decade and help the federal government lead the nation by example,” she said.

Federal green efforts are expected to save $18 billion over the lifetime of various sustainability efforts, according to acting OMB director Jeffrey Zients.

The Agriculture Department saw a 4.7 percent increase in its direct emissions — the agency planned a 5.5 percent reduction for fiscal 2011. The agency said the increase came from increased use of vehicles in fiscal 2011 in order to provide services at locations that span all 50 states.

The plan is to close or consolidate about 260 field offices to save $150 million annually, which could help lower emissions by reducing the agency’s facility energy use. NASA was able to reduce its direct emissions by 12.0 percent in fiscal 2011 — nearly triple its 4.6 percent goal.

Olga Dominguez, assistant administrator for the Office of Strategic Infrastructure at NASA, credited the reduction with increased training among employees and to several agency working groups that meet regularly to focus on achieving federal sustainability mandates.

She said the agency has also been able to reduce energy use and emissions by building new energy-efficient facilities.

“NASA has taken a lead among federal agencies in sustainable buildings,” Dominguez said. She pointed to the Propellants North facility at Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla., which produces more energy than it uses through solar panels.

She said potential budget cuts could present a challenge to NASA as it attempts to build more environmentally friendly buildings.

Rachael Jonassen, a senior consultant at LMI, a nonprofit organization that helped develop federal greenhouse gas reporting protocols, said agencies are making good progress despite some falling short in reducing emissions.

She said agencies are tackling the low-hanging fruit but will need to do more to meet their 2020 emission reduction goals.

“The challenge now is finding those ways to reduce emissions that are not so clear cut,” Jonassen said.

She said tighter budgets will likely curb efforts to become more sustainable, but agencies can use alternative financing to make progress without appropriated funding. That would include energy savings performance contracts — in which a vendor pays the upfront costs of facility renovations and retrofits in exchange for payments from the government’s energy savings over time.

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Oriana Pawlyk contributed to this story.

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