A long-simmering feud between the chemical industry and a leading green building certifier could boil over next month when the Senate is expected to debate a marquee energy efficiency bill.
The U.S. Green Building Council is ramping up efforts to defend its landmark Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification from an amendment it expects to be offered to the pending efficiency bill from Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio). USGBC sources say they fear the amendment would effectively bar the General Services Administration from continuing to use LEED to measure the efficiency and sustainability of federal buildings.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who is writing the amendment, stressed that eliminating LEED is not her goal and that the precise details of the amendment are still being worked out. She described her coming amendment as a "friendly" effort to improve the bill, which she said she supports.
"I'm a strong supporter of LEED, but there are ways that you can achieve a LEED standard without having specific materials dictated," Landrieu told E&E Daily in an interview this week. "And what we want to do is ... open up a broader way to meet it and putting a level playing field between different manufacturers -- chemical manufacturers."
Chemical manufacturers and other business groups have been working for at least a year to thwart proposed changes to LEED that would discourage the use of certain chemicals in building materials, going so far as to launch a new coalition last year as an alternative to USGBC (Greenwire, July 19, 2012).
Landrieu last year joined other senators in echoing the industry's concerns about LEED and signed onto a letter to GSA urging the agency to abandon LEED unless its chemical provisions were abandoned.
A Landrieu aide, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the drafting process, stressed that the goal "is not at all outlawing the use of LEED." Staff members are considering several options that would allow GSA to use a variety of certification systems without foreclosing LEED, but it remains unclear how that would be accomplished, the aide said. Work on the amendment has been placed on the back burner for now, as the farm bill and immigration reform have jumped Shaheen-Portman in the queue of legislation headed to the Senate floor, the aide said.
Fears of a Shaheen-Portman amendment targeting LEED have been percolating among green building advocates for weeks. Before the bill was marked up by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee earlier this month, USGBC and more than a dozen other pro-efficiency groups sent a letter to committee leaders urging them to resist "any effort or measure that would restrict the federal government from using proven, cost-effective green building programs, particularly the market-leading LEED green building rating system."
The letter, which also was signed by the Alliance to Save Energy, Natural Resources Defense Council and Service Employees International Union, among others, did not go into detail on how LEED would be restricted, but sources say it was motivated by a potential amendment similar to the one Landrieu is now considering. Instead, the LEED defenders touted the program's record, pointing out its use on more than 1,000 federal projects and highlighting a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory study, which found that GSA's LEED-certified buildings save an average of 27 percent off their energy bills.
No amendments were considered by the committee, which backed the bill on a 19-3 vote.
Shaheen-Portman, S. 761, is waiting for its turn to come to the Senate floor, as Democratic and Republican leadership continue to negotiate an agreement over how many amendments would be offered, leadership aides said this week. The bill has a good chance of being considered next month, after the Senate completes its work on the farm bill and immigration reform.
Portman said the LEED changes were discussed before the committee markup but that no amendment was offered because the issue divided the broad coalition that is backing the underlying bill. Portman said his house in Ohio is LEED-certified and that he supported the program as the pre-eminent green building rating system, but he added that he welcomed a debate over the issue on the floor.
"I think it's worth a discussion and certainly don't want to have a standard that picks and chooses technologies," Portman told E&E Daily this week. "We want to have a standard that maximizes efficiency."
USGBC has spent three years updating its LEED requirements and plans to hold a vote on the new standards next month among its members. Among the changes being considered are a proposal that would provide points under the LEED rating system for using products manufactured under the rubric of certain chemical-transparency programs or that avoid using certain chemicals of concern.
The amendment coming from Landrieu is seen by some green building advocates as an attempt by the chemical industry to undercut LEED via legislation after it failed to prevail through the USGBC internal development process.
One version being considered would require GSA to use only green building certification systems that "are voluntary consensus standards that have achieved [American National Standards Institute] designation or were developed by an ANSI Audited Designator," according to proposed language circulating among lobbyists. While the proposal seems innocuous enough on its face, USGBC sees it as a "Trojan horse" attempt to outlaw the government's use of LEED because the rating system does not have an ANSI designation, sources said.
"They're following through on their threats to ban LEED," one USGBC source said of the proposal.
LEED's defenders point out that several other widely used rating systems do not carry an ANSI designation, including U.S. EPA's Energy Star and WaterSense programs.
The Landrieu aide said that language is not the only option being considered, but he declined to detail other potential approaches because the drafting process is still in its relatively early stages. The goal is to keep GSA's efforts focused on reducing overall energy use without getting bogged down in separate debates over chemical safety.
The concern is that including chemical components in LEED "takes it from a standard that promotes efficiency to de facto regulation," the aide said.
The American Chemistry Council, which helped form the alternative green building coalition last year, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Other members of the alternative group, the American High-Performance Buildings Coalition, include the National Association of Manufacturers, Chemical Fabrics & Film Association, Extruded Polystyrene Foam Association and Vinyl Building Council.
Chip Yost, NAM's assistant vice president for energy and resources policy, said he was not familiar with the pending amendment but noted that his group's members are split on how chemical use should be factored into LEED ratings, even though there is broad support overall for the rating system.
The issue essentially boils down to a split within the broader building industry over whether LEED should consider potential health and environmental ramifications related to chemical use or whether it should strictly focus on driving down the amount of energy required to light and heat buildings.
"From a manufacturing standpoint we'd say, 'Listen, let's focus on how to make that building the most energy efficient we can,'" Yost said.
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