Monday, January 28, 2008

Shocker: Congress throws taxpayer money into black hole, gets nothing in return

I guess I missed this when it first happened, but in November the Democrat-led House of Representatives voted to set aside nearly $90,000 to offset carbon emissions associated with our esteemed legislators' activities.

[Insert your own joke here regarding Congress and emissions]

Today the WaPo (via MSNBC) reports that our congressfolks have been taught a lesson about the nature of the carbon offset industry:

The House of Representatives has presumably learned that money cannot buy love or happiness. Now, it turns out it's not a sure solution to climate guilt, either.

In November, the Democratic-led House spent about $89,000 on so-called carbon offsets. This purchase was supposed to cancel out greenhouse-gas emissions from House buildings -- including half of the U.S. Capitol -- by triggering an equal reduction in emissions elsewhere.

Some of the money went to farmers in North Dakota, for tilling practices that keep carbon buried in the soil. But some farmers were already doing this, for other reasons, before the House paid a cent.

Other funds went to Iowa, where a power plant had been temporarily rejiggered to burn more cleanly. But that test project had ended more than a year before the money arrived.

The House's purchase provides a view into the confusing world of carbon offsets, a newly popular commodity with few rules. Analysts say some offsets really do cause new reductions in pollution. But others seem to change very little.

To environmentalists, the House's experience is a powerful lesson about a market where pure intentions can produce murky results.

"It didn't change much behavior that wasn't going to happen anyway," said Joseph Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who writes a blog calling for more aggressive action on climate change. "It just, I think, demonstrated why offsets are controversial and possibly pointless. . . . This is a waste of taxpayer money."

The House bought its offsets through the Chicago Climate Exchange, a five-year-old commodities market where greenhouse-gas credits are traded like pork bellies.

Yes, they've been taught a lesson, but to paraphrase our current president, Is our congressfolks learning? Not likely, if they justify their behavior using the logic offered by the Chicago Climate Exchange:

This month, officials at the exchange vigorously defended the sale, saying the House's money had done a great deal of good by funneling money to those who were helping to combat climate change.

"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," said Richard Sandor, the exchange's chairman and chief executive.

Read Sandor's comment carefully. Carbon offsets, ostensibly meant by their purchasers to offset current emissions, do not necessarily go to people or organizations currently engaged in offsetting activities. Rather, offset money can be used to reward people that had "done things that had environmental good in the past". Even better, the money can be used to "incentivize" these good folks to do environmental good in the future. No obligation, it appears.