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Montco's next color: Green

The county is set to approve a plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Clearing the Record

As part of the world's carbon footprint, Montgomery County doesn't even constitute as much as a toe.

But the county wants to make an even smaller impression. So today, its commissioners are expected to take a rare step and adopt a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a variety of ways.

No other county in Pennsylvania or South Jersey has done so.

"It's really groundbreaking . . . and is a real model for what other counties or regional bodies can do," said Brian Hill, president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, a statewide nonprofit advocacy group. He served on the task force that produced the 200-page-plus "Greenprint for Montgomery County: Climate Change Action Plan" that the commissioners intend to approve this morning.

Though the county - the third largest in Pennsylvania - emits more greenhouse gases than half the world's nations do individually, "as part of the [global] problem we're very, very small," said Commissioners Chairman Thomas Jay Ellis. "But as part of the solution, we can be big."

The plan suggests a range of targets to reduce the county's greenhouse gas levels by 51 percent by 2025 through a variety of action steps, with the county leading by example.

They include getting employees to turn off their computers before they head home each night, converting electrical generation to renewable energy sources, promoting mass-transit use, and encouraging the development of energy-efficient homes and businesses.

Both Pennsylvania and New Jersey are working on statewide plans for global-warming remediation and greater energy independence.

A spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection yesterday lauded Montgomery County's initiative as not only "a positive step for our environment," but a boost to national security by "decreasing our dependence on foreign oil."

The hoped-for snowball effect of Montgomery County's actions might not be too far off.

Delaware County is working on a plan to reduce carbon emissions and improve energy efficiency that could be ready by early next year, spokeswoman Trish Cofiell said yesterday.

What undoubtedly would help is knowing exactly what the county's greenhouse gas emissions are. The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission hopes to provide that answer and others.

Its board will be voting today on the agency's fiscal 2009 work program, which includes compiling a greenhouse gases inventory for the agency's nine-county territory: Bucks, Burlington, Camden, Chester, Delaware, Gloucester, Mercer, Montgomery and Philadelphia.

Such inventories have only been done for two counties: Montgomery (13.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents as of 2004) and Philadelphia (16.7 metric tons as of 2006).

Montgomery County's inventory was prepared in 2005 by Sarah Knuth, a Pennsylvania State University graduate student, for her master's thesis. The county commissioners responded to the inventory and the reduction recommendations that accompanied it by appointing the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Task Force in January. The bipartisan group, which started at 18 members and grew to closer to 25 participants, included lawyers, environmentalists, college professors and municipal officials.

A priority, said cochairman Michael O'Donoghue, a lawyer and member of the SEPTA board, was "to come up with some realistic goals and realistic methods of achieving the goals."

That's why the group "pretty early on and pretty firmly" ruled out recommending "taxation to somehow spur environmental improvement by penalizing . . . unacceptable behavior."

"We thought we should be positive," O'Donoghue said, "not negative."

While the task force worked, the county wasn't idle. It spent more than $1 million in eco-friendly improvements to county buildings, including high-efficiency windows, variable frequency drives for fans and pumps, and occupancy sensors for room lighting. In October, the county became the first in the United States to operate completely with wind-generated electricity.

O'Donoghue said he thinks the task force recommendations that have the greatest chance of successful implementation are those promoting residential energy efficiency and, on the business front, the use of telecommuting, carpooling and encouraging employees to buy fuel-efficient vehicles with incentives such as offering them prime parking spaces.

Ellis, the commissioners' chairman, said the tougher questions will be whether the county should incur debt by floating bonds, for instance, to offer municipalities matching grants or loans to promote compliance with the county's climate-change action plan.

That won't be his problem. He leaves office Jan. 7 and hopes the new administration will embrace the task force's recommendations, including appointing a Greenhouse Gas Strategy Coordinator.

Speaking for the incoming minority party, Commissioner-elect Joe Hoeffel said his time on the campaign trail left him no doubt the county needs to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and do "a lot more" to promote better environmental stewardship.

Despite its long track record of open-space and farmland preservation, Hoeffel, a Democrat, said, "the county doesn't have an environmental policy, and it desperately needs one."

Read the Montgomery County greenhouse plan via