Local activists urge for more environmental action as D.C. falls behind city goals – UPDATED

By Tommy Furlong

In 2017 Mayor Bowser pledged to make Washington D.C. carbon neutral by 2050. Today, Mark Rodeffer of the Sierra Club said in a phone interview, “D.C is definitely not on track to meet the 2050 goal.”

In fact, he said, “D.C. is probably not quite on track to hit the 2032 goals” of 50% reduction in carbon emissions.

Local activists are frustrated by the progress but remain a necessary actor in the fight. Today organizations are lobbying against Washington Gas and Pepco policies, local energy utility companies, while others remain active cleaning and finding ways to effectively manage an ever-urbanizing environment.

Rodeffer is an executive committee member of the Sierra Club D.C. Chapter and cochair of the beyond gas subcommittee, which he said in a phone interview, “puts effort into trying to end the use of fossil fuels in buildings.”

Currently the effort has gone into preventing Washington Gas, who provide natural gas services to over1.2 million customers in the DMV area, from passing a new energy plan in front of the D.C. Public Service Commission that would fall short on previous agreements of going carbon neutral with the city in 2050.

Released in March, their plan, proposes two alternatives to help transition away from reliance on natural gas: renewable natural gas (RNG) and green-hydrogen. The RNG source, according to Rodeffer, will take the form of manure gas, extracted methane from cow manure mixed with traditional fracked gas.

Rodeffer said, “it still creates carbon dioxide when burned and it still leaks methane, which is a very powerful greenhouse gas.”

The other option, green-hydrogen, can be carbon neutral but comes in limited supplies that, according to Rodeffer, won’t come close to filling the necessary void natural gas leaves behind.

“And they say, voila, look, we have this organically sourced gas, so problem solved. It’s ridiculous, it’s not true and it’s expensive,” said Rodeffer.

No longer on board with city goals, Rodeffer said, “they’ve proven that they do not operate in good faith when it comes to climate change.”     

We Power DC, a local coalition, is fighting a different energy utility company, Pepco, advocating for public power as opposed to investor owned utility companies.

“If the public has a say in what their utility is, then we would actually be able to push forward, things that are environmentally friendly and things that result in lower costs,” said Laura Petersen, a member of the coalition in a Zoom interview.

Public power is seen as a chance to realign the priorities of money minded companies and focus on the issues the customers care about, such as reaching net-zero emissions. “A publicly owned utility,” said Petersen, “would give us more say in making sure that it’s actually reaching that goal.”  

But there is so much more to confronting the issues of climate change, and the greater D.C. area provides a surprisingly helpful landscape to finding and maintaining volunteers to support local and national initiatives.

Kurt Moser, president of the Four Mile Run Conservatory Foundation, said, “we couldn’t even accommodate all the volunteers that wanted to come out and do kayak clean ups with us.”

With a main goal of engaging people in stewardship of an urban ecosystem, Four Mile Run puts on seasonal bi-weekly kayak clean ups, along with on-shore litter clean ups and nature walks. However, the spot will always be impacted by the city growth and urbanization it has witnessed.

The Arlington wastewater treatment plant is located on the stream as well as the Metro bus facility. The Dominion transmission lines, massive power poles, also run through the stream. Meanwhile, Reagan National Airport sits at the mouth of the stream and the Potomac River.

“Prior to say, well, really 15, 20 years ago,” said Moser, “Four Mile Run was definitely viewed, largely as a waste conduit.” The surrounding urbanization brought increased traffic, pollution, and construction that has wreaked irreversible damage, says Moser.

Worsening impacts will ensue if cities fail to confront the issue of city growth alongside climate change, according to Payton Chung chair of the Smart Growth Committee of the D.C. Sierra Club.  

He said in a phone interview, “We have a responsibility to promote both human enjoyment of [land], but also to minimize the human footprint where we can.”

In 2017 the Sierra Club lobbied on behalf of the replacement of parking lots from Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium into playing fields. The decision allowed for an environmental win in depaving the lot, helping to improve water quality in the nearby Anacostia River and bringing back a green space to the community. 

Nationally, the Sierra Club doesn’t typically support the expansion of recreational land use. However, Chang recognizes when working in a city balancing growth and environmental change has to come off the back of compromise, and he said this was. “the best compromise.”  

It shows with this example that while it may seem like growth and conservation are completely at odds with each other, he said, there is actually a balance that can be struck between the two.

“It’s more of a question of where and how things are built, as opposed to whether they are built,” said Chung. Therefore, their energy is focused on promoting green building standards and net-zero energy codes, which would require buildings to have no carbon emissions.

There are has been some progress though, Moser for example, said, “I can’t believe how much nicer (Four Mile Run) is now, how much more, just extraordinarily beautiful it is compared to how it was in 2001.”

Yet more work is needed if the city wants to reach its self-established goals, and these, mostly, volunteer-based organizations are aware the work can’t always be in their hands. “If D.C. really expands renewable energy, we can do it, we can meet the 2032 goal. If, we have good leadership from the D.C. government, from the mayor, and from the council in the Public Service Commission,” said Rodeffer.

Reaching the 2050 goal on the other hand will require extremely drastic changes.

Kurt Moser, president of the Four Mile Run Conservatory Foundation, finishes placing the kayaks away after a weekend clean up that brought in 118 pounds of trash from Four Mile Run Stream.


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