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Chemical and plastics trade groups claim the federal government should stop using LEED. BuildingGreen separates the facts from the fabrications.

The FOX Architects-designed American Chemistry Council headquarters in Washington, D.C.
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A developing focus on chemicals of concern in the LEED rating systems could make federal buildings less energy-efficient, according to the American Chemistry Council (ACC).

In recent letters to the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight and to a number of representatives in the U.S. Congress (PDF), ACC and others also claim that LEED v4 (formerly known as LEED 2012) is not “science-based” and does not use a “true consensus approach” to development.

LEED: “a tool to punish chemical companies”?

The latter document went to a group of legislators who have echoed ACC’s position in their own letter (PDF) to the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) pointing to “arbitrary chemical restrictions” and claiming LEED is “becoming a tool to punish chemical companies.” See Lloyd Alter’s incisive coverage at Treehugger for more background on the congressional letter to GSA.

Below, we look at each of AAC’s claims and separate the truth from the lies. But first…

Why this attack matters

The federal government, including the military, is the single largest user of the LEED rating systems. According to data provided by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), 7% of LEED-certified projects and 11.5% of those pending certification are federal government buildings. The public sector as a whole (federal, state, and local governments combined) makes up a whopping 27% of LEED-certified projects, and smaller governments could follow the federal lead on LEED. Use of LEED by these entities has, over the last 12 years, helped develop green practices and products across the industry.

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Both GSA and the Department of Defense are currently reviewing a number of green building rating systems and codes, taking a hard look at their alignment with federal government goals, including energy and cost savings as well as toxic chemical avoidance.

As that continues, we can probably expect more intense lobbying by more and more industries along similar lines. How much traction they get remains to be seen, and fact-checking makes a difference.

CLAIM: Chemical credits will eliminate certain materials from LEED buildings

ACC argues that a new focus on chemicals of concern will mean that project teams will not be able to choose certain materials. “Energy-efficient materials such as insulation, reflective roofing, piping, and wiring could be targeted for ‘avoidance’ by LEED [v4],” said Cal Dooley, CEO at ACC.

USGBC response: According to Brendan Owens, vice president for LEED technical development at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), “There is no ‘red list’ of banned chemicals or products” in LEED v4. Rather, the proposed credits “are focused on encouraging the use of materials known to have desirable characteristics from a human health perspective,” and “the responsible use of any particular product will not disqualify project teams from achieving certification.”

BuildingGreen Fact Check: LEED does not ban any materials except ozone-depleting refrigerants that are targeted for phase-out by international treaty.

The third Public Comment draft of LEED v4 did include a list of chemicals that could be avoided to earn one or two points; this list was removed from the fourth Public Comment draft in response to public comments and was replaced with a reference to the European Union’s REACH protocol.

LEED project teams who choose to pursue the material avoidance credits only need to address a small percentage of products to earn the one or two points. They may choose alternative materials or design options to meet energy-efficiency needs in insulation, roofing, and other areas—and there are plenty of environmentally preferable options that don’t sacrifice performance. The point structure of LEED heavily emphasizes energy efficiency, and there is no incentive to sacrifice that for chemical avoidance.

When I suggested to Dooley that people could simply choose alternatives, he replied, “It does not appear that USGBC has conducted any analysis of the alternatives to these products or demonstrated that there are equally performing alternatives available to builders.”

Dooley does have a valid point—that the LEED requirements would push some projects into areas where development of market options is needed. But that’s part of the “market transformation” that USGBC is working to do with LEED: to push buildings in a greener, healthier direction and assume that the money spent by those projects will stimulate the market to follow. The analysis that Dooley suggests should have been done would make more sense for a mandatory code requirement than for an optional credit.

CLAIM: Chemical credits will reduce energy efficiency

ACC contends that credits for chemical avoidance detract from LEED’s energy goals. Its recent letter to legislators praised the lawmakers for their claim that “the proposed LEED 2012 criteria will make federal buildings less energy efficient[,] resulting in increased costs to taxpayers.” That group of lawmakers in their own letter to GSA stated that LEED v4 would be “counterproductive in the mission to develop more sustainable and energy efficient building codes.”

USGBC response: This characterization is “a false dichotomy,” said Owens. “Sustainability requires a holistic approach to balance multiple fundamental priorities.” That said, Owens told BuildingGreen, “LEED’s commitment to energy efficiency and climate change mitigation and adaptation has never been stronger, and nothing proposed in LEED v4 changes this significant focus.” Owens pointed to the “seven overarching system goals” that drive LEED, which address not only energy and water conservation but also human health, biodiversity, and sustainable material resource cycles.

BuildingGreen Fact Check: It is false to suggest that chemical avoidance will come at the expense of energy efficiency.

Proposed chemical credits are a miniscule percentage of the whole of LEED, and there is no requirement to achieve them, while tough energy prerequisites remain.

But it’s not just USGBC that views sustainable building holistically. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) is about more than energy conservation. Green building rating systems are to be evaluated according to a number of criteria:

  • “Efficient and sustainable use” of energy, water, and natural resources
  • Use of renewable energy sources
  • Improved indoor environmental quality
  • Reduced impacts from transportation
  • “Such other criteria as the Federal Director determines to be appropriate”

These other criteria currently include “system maturity” and “usability.” The federal government also compares rating systems against its Guiding Principles, which include the sustainability of materials and resources.

Not only will avoidance of certain chemicals and materials not reduce energy efficiency, but energy efficiency—by a long shot—is not the only criterion the federal government itself uses to evaluate green building rating systems.

CLAIM: Chemical credits will kill jobs

ACC is also claiming that the new Avoidance of Chemicals of Concern Credit will hurt the economy and cost jobs. As the forestry industry has proven, playing the “jobs card” is a guaranteed way to get attention—but the card is not always backed up by data.

BuildingGreen Fact Check: ACC has no data to back its claim.

Dooley did not have specific numbers on the potential economic impact of the new Avoidance of Chemicals of Concern credit, saying only, “Forcing the avoidance of popular and proven building materials would undoubtedly hurt the producers of these products” and citing data about how many jobs the chemical industry supports in Michigan and Ohio. Past evidence, however, suggests that innovation encourages market growth and helps create jobs.

The language of “forcing avoidance” gets to the crux of the issue and reinforces a common misunderstanding about LEED: that credits are the same as requirements. They’re not. Only the prerequisites are required; credits are a menu to choose from. You can completely skip chemical avoidance and still achieve LEED certification.

A precautionary approach favors chemicals that are proven to be less hazardous.
Photo Credit: BuildingGreen, Inc.

CLAIM: Chemical credits are not science-based

ACC told BuildingGreen, “A truly science-based approach would consider all facts, not selectively chosen attributes of ingredients in products. The avoidance and listings credits take a hazard-only approach, excluding the questions of exposure or actual risk.”

BuildingGreen Fact Check: It’s true that the chemical credits emphasize a hazard-avoidance approach. It’s false to claim that this approach is not science-based.

Both a hazard-avoidance approach and a risk-assessment approach to toxic chemicals are science-based. The proposed chemical credits in LEED (which are still evolving) currently reference European REACH legislation and the Green Screen for Safer Chemicals. Both of these have a precautionary orientation—meaning they favor chemicals scientifically proven to be safer. (Regulations in the U.S. tend to require that chemicals be proven unsafe before their use can be restricted.) Both REACH and Green Screen are backed by rigorous scientific research and review.

The associated lists target major hazards for which an avoidance strategy makes sense—particularly in the absence of sufficiently rigorous studies and data on exposure, since neither the chemical industry nor the government has chosen to invest in the research needed to provide that data. These substances include persistent, bioaccumulative toxic chemicals, to which eventual exposure is almost assured.

CLAIM: USGBC does not use a consensus approach

ACC has also accused USGBC of not using a “true” consensus-based approach. “USGBC is an ANSI-accredited organization but has not taken the next steps and completed the requirements of an ANSI standard,” Dooley said. “The internal committees…appear to lack participation of appropriately qualified experts.”

Dooley added that “in a true consensus process, USGBC would have to provide technical support for the material avoidance or material ingredient listing credits.” When I asked Dooley whether ACC had participated in the process, he responded that the group had submitted public comments “that were ignored.”

USGBC response: Owens called this line of attack “a distraction from the substantive issues,” adding, “LEED is developed in accordance with a rigorously inclusive process.  We have received more than 22,000 public comments and have responded to each individually. We work cooperatively with industries, and LEED standards are set in a consensus-driven, transparent manner led by technical experts in their fields.”

BuildingGreen Fact Check: It’s true that LEED is not an ANSI standard. It’s false to say that it is not a consensus-based standard.

The federal government defers to consensus standards but does not require the rating systems it uses to be ANSI standards. ANSI defines specific requirements for stakeholder balance and consensus, but this is not the only structure accepted by ISO or the federal government.

In its recent review of rating systems, GSA noted that LEED was not an ANSI standard but concluded that LEED was developed according to a rigorously transparent consensus process according to on its own definition:

The certification system contains the attributes of a voluntary consensus standards body defined in OMB Circular A-119: openness, balance of interest, due process, an appeal process, and consensus.

ACC may be pushing this message because its own preferred rating system—Green Globes, which has stronger ties to mainstream industries and lobbyists—is an ANSI standard.

Postponing LEED v4

You may be wondering if this attack is related to the postponement of the erstwhile LEED 2012, which is now called LEED v4 because it won’t be available until 2013.

Yes and no. While the chemical industry attacks have no direct relationship to the decision to delay rollout, as Nadav Malin reported in EBN earlier this week, there was a more widespread sense—particularly among “core supporters” of LEED—that “the proposed changes in the rating system were too much, too fast, especially in a weak real estate market.”

Avoidance of Chemicals of Concern was among the credits making these groups worry, and a series of gut renovations with each public comment draft may have made the process more vulnerable to industry attacks as the rating system failed to stabilize around a specific, robust approach.

Disclosure: BuildingGreen has collaborated with USGBC on several projects over the last two decades, and several of our staff have participated in USGBC committees and the board of directors.

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1 Coverage in The Hill posted by Paula Melton on 06/20/2012 at 08:41 am

Some of the more mainstream news outlets are starting to take notice, and there is serious anti-LEED activity around this in Congress right now. Read more over at The Hill. Regardless of where your allegiances lie, everyone should be taking this very seriously. Now would be a good time to take part in public comments to GSA as they review green building rating systems. You can find dates here, in our coverage on the topic.


2 Really, really annoyed at the ACC posted by Barbara A. Smith on 06/22/2012 at 10:26 pm

How dare they attack LEED for its moderate, consensus-built and science-based standards!  You would think that after all the media attention a decade or so ago re sick buildings and mulitple chemical sensitivity these would be settled matters, and no debates on whether or not the earth is flat would be surfacing again.  Unfortunately, research into MCS, often caused by poor indoor air quality, stopped in 1998 at the CDC.

These attacks are just more tea-party know-nothingism.

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