Watchdog group demands information on green building program

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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A government watchdog group is demanding copies of all emails to the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit, from the General Services Administration in order to shed light on any possible influence the green nonprofit could have had on the GSA’s decision to require all buildings meet USGBC’c green building certification program.

At issue is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, green building certification program created by USGBC — to reduce emissions, water use, waste and indoor air pollutants — which the GSA now requires for all federal buildings under its authority.

“We’re trying to see if there is a connection between the U.S. Green Building Council, a 501(c)3, that is benefitting financially from these new standards,” said David Williams, president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, “to get to the genesis of these LEED standards and see exactly just how much influence this nonprofit had.”

The GSA has been a large factor in the growing use of LEED standards as it requires all buildings under its authority to meet LEED Gold level standards — the second highest level — and Williams argues that this gives USGBC a virtual “taxpayer monopoly” over federal green building standards, which benefits them financially.

A building can achieve different level of LEED certification based on a 100-point scale. The more points a building has from taking eco-friendly measures, the higher the certification level. There are four levels of certification.

LEED standards have been hailed by environmental groups, but their benefits have recently come under some scrutiny.

States and localities across the country have also used LEED standards as a basis for handing out tax breaks. About 2,000 developments, buildings and homes across the country received $500 million in tax breaks, according to USA Today — the higher level of LEED certification, the more tax breaks a project may be eligible for.

However, governments have put little effort into researching LEED’s effectiveness and LEED can add millions in construction costs even though many requirements have no proven environmental benefits.

USA Today reported that nearly one-third of LEED projects are government-owned, and that more than 200 federal, state and municipal agencies require buildings meet the standards. This has helped USGBC members boost their own LEED-related businesses through influencing officials.

“Looking at it on the surface, it looks very self-serving for a nonprofit to recommend these standards,” said Williams, adding that USGBC benefits from the standards.

In fact, the most popular LEED point option a building can earn is by having someone on the design team be a LEED expert, which is earned through an up to $800 course from a non-profit that USGBC created.

Williams hopes the Freedom of Information Act request will reveal “what [LEED is] going to cost taxpayers in additional construction costs and paperwork.”

“This is also [a test] in transparency and government to see how willing the GSA is to give me the information,” Williams said. “This really gets to the heart of taxpayer funded nonprofits and also government transparency, the ability for taxpayers to get information from their government and see what goes on when it comes to regulation.”

UPDATE: Dan Cruz, GSA Spokesman, told the DC News Foundation in an email that the “GSA makes federal buildings more efficient by using the federal government’s own standards for reducing water and energy use, which saves taxpayer dollars. Third party certification systems, like LEED, are just how we measure building performance.” 

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