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Taxpayers' Group Targets Federal Government's Use of LEED

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Saying it aims to reduce government waste, the group requests emails sent between GSA and USGBC.

By Paula Melton

0809%20Courthouse%20Eugene%20Courtroom_t

The Morse Courthouse in Eugene, Oregon, is one of 22 buildings analyzed in a 2011 white paper on the performance of GSA buildings. The analysis, says USGBC, supports the idea that LEED is a wise use of taxpayer dollars.

Tim Griffith/Esto

A think tank and lobbying group called the Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) has requested nine years’ worth of emails between the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), creator of the LEED rating systems. According to reporter Michael Bastasch of conservative website The Daily Caller, the goal of the request is “to shed light on any possible influence the green nonprofit could have had on the GSA’s decision to require all buildings meet USGBC’s green building certification program.”

“Pretty inane”

The group is likely to be disappointed, says Lane Burt, USGBC’s director of technical policy, who adds that USGBC staff members correspond regularly with GSA staff members.

“There’s no different treatment of GSA than of any other big stakeholder,” Burt told EBN, comparing the agency to companies like McDonald’s, Target, and Citibank, all of which seek certification for large numbers of buildings. During that process, “there’s a lot of back and forth between USGBC, design teams, and owners,” he explains. “Probably from most people’s perspective, it’s a lot of pretty inane technical information. That’s what they’re going to find.”

TPA president David Williams, who says a recent series of articles about LEED in USA Today piqued his curiosity, isn’t so sure. After some research, he claims, “one thing spurred more of my interest: USGBC saw a huge spike in their income right about when GSA went with these standards,” and he intends to find out “if there was any coordination” between GSA and USGBC.

Checking the data

Williams could not identify a source to back his assertion about USGBC’s revenue, but the organization saw tremendous growth throughout the 2000s as green building became more mainstream. How much GSA may have contributed to this growth is unclear; getting a nod of legitimacy from the federal agency couldn’t have hurt, and one recent study from Harvard University found that laws requiring LEED in public buildings have spurred the adoption of LEED in the private sector. A record of payments from federal agencies to USGBC is available at usaspending.gov, however, and the data there do not suggest that GSA contributed directly to USGBC’s enormous financial growth.

GSA first started requiring LEED certification for new buildings in 2003, and during that fiscal year, the federal government paid $18,150 to USGBC—for education and training services. It renewed the LEED requirement after review in 2006, when fees paid to the organization totaled $11,644. The agency bumped up its requirement from LEED Silver to LEED Gold in late 2010 (total federal payments to USGBC: $98,823) but has not yet released the results of its most recent review of green building rating systems; one preliminary part of that review was published in May 2012.

According to usaspending.gov, federal payments to USGBC for training, publications, and certification totaled $536,453 over the last ten years. While that’s not peanuts, for context, that number is roughly 1.4% of USGBC’s revenue for training, publications, and certification fees for just one year, based on data in its 2011 annual report. It’s also a far cry from the number that Williams cited to EBN: $50 million. (Williams conflated the total budget for all GSA projects that used LEED with the actual payments to USGBC.)

Reports “kind of scrubbed”

During its congressionally mandated reviews of green building rating systems, GSA corresponds with all the organizations whose certifications are analyzed, Burt noted. “They reach out to us in the context of reaching out to everybody,” he explained. “That’s already on the record.”

Williams says he isn’t satisfied with the amount of information that’s already publicly available, though. When a final rule or recommendation is published, “it’s kind of scrubbed,” he asserted. “It doesn’t really go through the decision-making process. Behind every final regulation, there’s thousands of pages that we don’t necessarily get to see without asking for it.”

He told EBN that he had no plans, though, to file similar requests for email correspondence between GSA and the Green Building Initiative (creator of Green Globes) or the International Living Future Institute (creator of the Living Building Challenge), both of whose rating systems are also being analyzed as part of GSA’s current review process. “That was the first I had heard” of the other two organizations, claimed Williams, who has accused USGBC of having a “taxpayer monopoly.”

Nonsense, Burt contends. “It’s not true. We don’t have a monopoly. Some agencies use LEED; some use other things; some don’t use anything at all. Even GSA has certified buildings with other rating systems.” He argues, however, that “GSA keeps using LEED because they’re experienced with everything that’s out there, and it works best for them.”

“Not an advocacy organization”

As for transparency, Burt claims, “LEED is the most studied, most transparent rating system out there.” USGBC focuses most of its resources on its rating system, not on lobbying, he adds. The organization paid $365,000 to hired lobbyists in 2011, according to data on opensecrets.org—about one half of one percent of its total expenses in the same year, based on data in its 2011 annual report.

“USGBC is a technical organization. We’re completely focused on the market and what the market wants,” he argues. “We’re not an advocacy organization.” That said, he concedes, “We compete just like everyone else. Whether it’s the federal government, McDonald’s, Target, or Kohl’s, when they decide to use LEED, we celebrate.”

This attention from a tax-focused interest group comes on the heels of aggressive lobbying against LEED by certain segments of the forestry and chemical industries. Their efforts have contributed to anti-LEED legislation in a few states and, at the federal level, restrictions on LEED for the U.S. military. When EBN asked if industry groups are backing his efforts, Williams refused to say. “It comes from private sources, and I don’t reveal who my donors are,” he replied.

“I think you’d have to be pretty naïve to think it isn’t all related,” remarks Burt. Although USGBC will never be a lobbying organization, he adds, “We owe it to our members to push back. When LEED or any other rating system becomes politically determined instead of technically determined, it loses its legitimacy.”

What about taxpayers?

Like many critics, Williams cites bike racks as evidence of wasteful spending on LEED; although the rating systems focus most on energy and water savings, not every credit achieved through LEED is going to save money for building owners—in this case, U.S. taxpayers. So, email coordination or not, is LEED really worth doing?

Burt argues that multiple studies, including GSA’s August 2011 evaluation (PDF) of 22 buildings’ actual performance, suggest the answer is yes. That study compared similar commercial buildings completed during the same timeframe and found that GSA’s LEED Gold buildings were among the highest performers, using 27% less energy than the national average and costing 34% less to operate. “The value of LEED for the federal government or for anyone in the private sector is to ensure that you got what you paid for,” he said. “It helps them ensure they’re going to save the money they thought they were going to save.”

Burt adds, “I think the only story involving taxpayers and green building is the one about taxpayer savings.”

Comments (5)

1 nice article, tiny group posted by Jim Vallette on 01/29/2013 at 10:53 am

Great piece Paula. One small point: it might be a bit grandiose to call the TPA a "think tank" - it's really a one-person operation. Mr. Williams is part of the talking head industry that does a lot more talking and conjecturing than real digging for ground truth.

2 Thanks, Jim! posted by Paula Melton on 01/29/2013 at 11:14 am

Point taken. Deciding how to characterize the group's work was actually somewhat difficult, and I'm sure what we decided on was imperfect.

3 Not so small after all? posted by Paula Melton on 01/29/2013 at 11:28 am

Jim, you might be interested in Lloyd Alter's new piece over at Treehugger, looking into the forces behind the group.

www.treehugger.com/corporate-responsibility/dark-money-behind-latest-lee...

4 aha! posted by Jim Vallette on 01/29/2013 at 11:59 am

Thanks Paula - that treehugger story really "opens the kimono" on this operation. - Jim

5 a little more detail posted by Jim Vallette on 01/29/2013 at 07:04 pm

Paula - I looked at their comments to LEED and compared them to ACC testimony to Congress and found them strikingly similar. This is part of the context for my article that we just posted on Pharos. Thanks for raising the subject. http://www.pharosproject.net/blog/detail/id/148

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January 25, 2013