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Wells Targets Capitol Coal Use

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Wells is aiming to stop the Capitol Power Plant from burning any coal in the near future.

Capitol Hill’s councilmember, Tommy Wells, is on the brink of launching his 2014 mayoral campaign.

He also thinks he can force the Architect of the Capitol to stop burning coal at the Capitol Power Plant, though given D.C.’s unique legal status, his prospects there are murky.

Wells, whose jurisdiction over Ward 6 includes Capitol Hill, plans to introduce council legislation to institute a citywide ban on burning coal.

The major target would be Congress’ power plant, where coal is still a fuel source for some basic needs. Though the AOC is seeking a permit from the District Department of the Environment to expand the plant into a 100 percent natural gas operation, it doesn’t have a timeline for phasing out coal entirely. Wells’ legislation would establish one.

His advocacy fits with his constituents’ concerns, and it’s rarely unpopular for a city official to take on Congress. But legal experts are skeptical that Wells’ bill would have the power to compel Congress to comply.

For one thing, it would be highly unusual. Senate Historian Donald Ritchie said he hasn’t seen a council bill exerting power over Congress in his 37 years on the job.

A saving grace for the bill could be that there are some sweeping environmental laws that require federal entities to comply with local regulations. But scholars point out that the Constitution explicitly places Washington under Congress’ control and, ultimately, Congress’ power would trump that of the council’s.

Wells’ chief of staff, Charles Allen, said the bill has not yet been drafted but would be written to ensure it has enforcement teeth. He said he didn’t foresee Congress voting to overturn a bill that had everyone’s best interest at heart.

Clean Air Watch President Frank O’Donnell agreed that regardless of the legal limitations, the bill could send a message to Congress that it couldn’t ignore: “A public relations battle always is resolved more quickly than a legal one.”

Public pressure prompted then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to demand the AOC lower its reliance on coal as its primary fuel source in 2009. Senior coal-state lawmakers had quashed earlier efforts to reduce coal use at the plant.

It could be another warning signal for those seeking to ban coal throughout the District, said John Walke, the Climate and Clean Air Program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I’m unaware of any law like that in the whole country,” he said.

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