Green Building under Threat: Feds May Drop LEED Endorsement

GSA/Screen capture

And so it begins: The public battle over the future of green building for the US Government. The GSA was supposed to issue a report with recommendations; instead they are asking for comments about which green rating system is best for government buildings.

Today, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) announced that it is seeking additional input from the public regarding the federal government’s use of third party green building certification systems. GSA published a notice in the Federal Register seeking public comments for the next 60 days on how the federal government can best use certification systems to measure the design and performance of the federal government’s construction and major modernization projects. ....GSA is currently evaluating three certification systems for green building standards, which include the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED 2009, the Green Building Initiative's Green Globes, and the International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge.

It appears that the GSA is not going to back any particular horse in this race, and is dumping the choice onto individual government agencies after a public comment period. At BuildingGreen, Paula Melton and Tristan Roberts write in GSA to Abandon LEED Endorsement

The GSA isn’t going to tell you whether LEED, Green Globes, or the Living Building Challenge is the best rating system for each agency’s mission. But they want agencies to keep these things in mind:

-There should be specific guidance about which credits to pursue.
-For efficiency, agencies should use one rating system across their portfolios.
-Each agency’s guidance should make it possible for the same rating system to be used for all building types.

How did it come to this?

Department of Energy/Public Domain

Last summer the GSA found "equivalence" between the USGBC's LEED certification system and the Green Globes system from GBI, the Green Building Initiative. (The Living Building Challenge, recently getting a lot of exposure thanks to the Bullitt Center in Seattle, was also looked at but is not a real challenger here)

What is Green Globes?

Hubbell Communications 2006 (no longer on site)/Screen capture

The GSA didn't note that the Green Globes system is was set up by a certain former Louisiana Pacific Lumber Vice President, Ward Hubbell. He's a communications specialist from Seattle whose company, Hubbell Communications is a pro at setting up "grasstops", shown in this screenshot I got in 2006. Grasstops are the opposite of grassroots, defined in the Washington post as

a cutting-edge form of influence peddling called "grass tops," which attempts to get prominent local citizens and organizations to lobby on behalf of interest groups. Unlike conventional lobbying, the technique does not require the firms' principals to meet with or even talk to lawmakers. The advocacy is indirect.

The Green Building Initiative is pure grasstops. It operates out of the same building as Hubbell Communications. As noted earlier, its board...

includes a couple of residential tract and custom home builders, representatives of Dow Chemical, the Vinyl Institute, the Resilient Floor Covering Institute, Solvay, a chemical company, a communications director for Weyerhaeuser and a member of the SFI communications committee, Trane, a large air conditioning company, a former chairman of the Vinyl Promotion Network and others.

Hubbell Communications has the motto: " We understand how public policy and perceptions are created and we use the power of communications to shape both." His creation, Green Globes, serves just one purpose: to be a building certification system that is friendlier to big wood and to the plastics industry and to displace LEED. More in LEED Bashing: Government Study Finds "Equivalence" Between LEED and Green Globes. and my 2006 post: Coming Soon: Greenwashed Lumber

What's with the wood?

© Franke James

The Sustainable Forestry Initiative was originally set up by the lumber industry as a less onerous alternative to Forest Stewardship Council. FSC has stronger rules against clear-cutting, in support of indigenous peoples and workers. SFI has complained for years that LEED gave a point for the use of FSC wood but no credit for the use of SFI. When they didn't get what they wanted from the USGBC, they appear to have decided to go after the LEED certification itself, organizing politicians last summer around amendments to open up certifications to stop what they called "foreign" wood. They actually got LEED banned in Maine. More:

...FSC is not perfect, and SFI is getting better. But SFI and Green Globes were founded but the lumber industry for one reason and one reason only: to stop the spread of FSC and LEED. They appear to be succeeding.
A Picture Is Worth: FSC vs SFI Forests

...."The SFI is not a legitimate measure of sustainable forestry. Consumers wishing to conserve forests should reject the SFI's claims."
Greenwashing in the New Yorker: The Sustainable Forestry Initiative

....At stake is a multi-billion dollar international market for eco-certified wood products, which rewards environmentally-responsible forestry companies with improved access to retail and business-to-business customers.
The War over Eco-Certified Wood

...This battle has been going on for years and is getting awfully tiresome. Lumber companies all over the world manage to meet the FSC standard, cutting trees in a sustainable fashion and paying their workers a living wage. Just do it and let's move on.
Buildup To Greenbuild: The War In The Woods Heats Up

"For now," Abusow said, "the building community should forgo the one point in the certified wood credit and use SFI-certified products in LEED buildings to demonstrate their pride and support for North American forests, communities, and jobs."
Rumble In The Lumberyard: FSC Wins This Round

....The government gives a Christmas present to the status-quo lumber industry.
State of Maine Bans Use Of LEED In State Construction

...having failed to get into the LEED rating system, Kathy Abusow and SFI have changed tactics, and now appear to be out to destroy it.
LEED-Bashing: SFI Couldn't Join LEED, So Now It Is Out To Destroy It.

The Plastic People join the fray

If the USGBC had a fight on their hands with big lumber, it was just a shadow of the power and influence of the plastics industry; they are made from petrochemicals, so if you attack vinyl, you attack big oil, big chemical, the heart of American industry and lobbying power. This is all over a proposed credit that doesn't even eliminate the use of these chemicals. However, it was a thin edge of the wedge, bringing the European REACH program to America. (See Christine's take on REACH here in EU REACH Law Used by US Lobbyists to Bash LEED) This can never be allowed to happen; as Christine notes, REACH:

requires that " every chemical used in quantities over one ton must be proven to be safe for human health and the environment by the chemical companies that profit from that chemical. If a chemical has risks, the industry must prove that the benefits to society outweigh the risks, which must also be carefully controlled."

Not gonna happen.

US Congress/Public Domain

First the Industry got all their poodles in Congress to complain, with over the top language like:

This transformation into an anti-chemical system runs counter to the government’s objectives of increasing energy efficiency and utilizes a European standard called REACH. US manufacturers have no ability to participate in the development. LEED 2012 not only threatens jobs, it will almost certainly cost taxpayers money. The arbitrary chemical restrictions in the two proposed credits could affect many energy-efficient construction products, such as insulation, roofing, wiring and energy-efficient windows, putting a further strain on already tight federal budgets.

More in LEED Bashing: Plastic People Join The Lumber Industry in Trying To Get The Feds To Drop LEED

AHPBC/Screen capture

Then they formed the American High-Performance Buildings Coalition, established to defend the use of poison plastics in the building industry. I called it " the greenwashing joke of the decade" in Update on The American High-Performance Buildings Coalition: Their Website is Live, and Here Are Their Members. The USGBC thought they were a bit of a joke too, and noted:

We welcome the announcement of the formation of the American High Performance Building Council, but as Ronald Reagan once said, we will 'trust but verify.'

More in Plastic People Set Up "American High-Performance Buildings Coalition" To Fight Restrictions on Plastics in Green Building.

It's no joke.

BuildingGreen/Screen capture

If you look at What Are The Plastic People So Afraid Of That They Want To Kill LEED?, I cross-referenced each of the members of the AHPBC against the chemicals they use and the hazards they present, using information from BuildingGreen's Avoiding Toxic Chemicals in Commercial Building Projects. Jennifer Sass nailed it at NRDC Switchboard:

What don't the toxic chemical companies like about the proposed improvements to LEED? The new proposed LEED Version 4 standard will give credits for building teams that use materials that do not cause cancer, birth defects, and other health or environmental impairments.

There's serious money behind the already serious money

Form 990/ IRS/Public Domain

It's not just the chemical companies defending their own interests, either; There are more Grasstops orgs being formed, like the Taxpayer's Protection Alliance, a front for some of the biggest dark money orgs in the country; people who have been described as having "operated within the underbelly of politics where secret money flows through obscure trusts and foundations to finance attack ads and campaigns free of fingerprints." and who have been running a "sham front group that would be better called Corporations Influencing Elections ... masquerading as a non-profit to conceal its funders and the scope of its electioneering activities."

More in The Dark Money Behind The Latest LEED-Bashing

What's Next?

No doubt, more Grasstops will spring up to make comments in the next 60 days. But it certainly appears that the GSA has folded under pressure; BuildingGreen notes:

The political atmosphere around GSA’s previous reliance on LEED has heated up, and it looks like GSA wilted. The new policy (subject to comment) would abandon a single endorsement of a rating system and leave federal agencies with the task of making a choice. If this is how GSA responded to political pressure, we can only imagine how individual agencies will respond.

About the only thing the green building industry can do is put in their own comments during the period, prepare for the possibility that about half of the market for LEED certified buildings will disappear, and look forward to legitimization of a green standard run by the lumber, plastic and petrochemical industry.

Tags: Green Building | LEED

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