The natural gas industry and some allies are working behind the scenes in Washington to block a green building rule that was expected to be a national model for carbon-neutral construction.
The rule, called Fossil Fuel-Generated Energy Consumption Reduction, would zero out fossil-fuel use—coal, fuel oil and natural gas—in all new and renovated federal buildings by 2030.
The natural gas industry says the policy would harm its image as a more environmentally friendly fuel than coal. Proponents of green architecture say the mandate would hasten buildings' energy efficiency nationwide and be a big money-saver. The federal government spends more than $7 billion a year to operate its inventory of 502,000 buildings. Buildings guzzle 40 percent of U.S. energy.
The Department of Energy (DOE) has been crafting the rule over the past year and a half. But now, the House of Representatives is considering halting the effort by choking off federal money needed to complete the rulemaking. The move would need Senate approval.
The green building requirement falls under Section 433 of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, a sweeping clean energy law passed by the George W. Bush administration. Last month, the House Energy and Water Development subcommittee tacked on a provision to a federal spending bill that would prohibit the DOE from funding Section 433.
The House Committee on Appropriations approved the plan on April 25. It now awaits a full vote from the House.
The controversy comes as President Obama increasingly embraces natural gas as a "cleaner" power source for buildings and cars—and as his administration unveils the first federal regulations on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the injection of millions of gallons of water and chemicals underground to extract natural gas.
The Main Players
The anti-Section 433 push is being led primarily by the American Gas Association (AGA), a trade group representing 200 natural gas utilities, and Representative Rodney Alexander, who proposed the House amendment. The conservative Republican from Louisiana is an outspoken advocate of natural gas. His homestate is a hotbed for fracking along the gas-rich Haynesville shale.
Jake Rubin, an AGA spokesperson, told InsideClimate News that natural gas "should be part of the conversation as we work to reach our country's energy efficient goals."
In addition to wanting natural gas power accepted as a green building element, AGA opposes having Section 433 be mandatory.
Ed Mazria, founder and CEO of Architecture 2030, a nonprofit that advocates for a carbon-neutral building sector, said the federal government's embrace of Section 433 matters for the rest of the country.
"When the federal government puts its weight behind a program, it takes on a new level of importance," he said. "The entire building sector is moving to meet these targets ... and so to have the federal government renege on its commitment is not a good idea."
Section 433 mirrors Architecture 2030's own carbon-neutral building goal, which thousands of architects, designers and governments have adopted worldwide. During his 2008 campaign, President Obama promised to set a target of making all the nation's buildings carbon-neutral by 2030.
White House: Yay or Nay?
In short, the DOE's proposed rule, crafted under the Obama administration, requires new federal buildings to reduce their fossil fuel-generated energy use by 55 percent in 2010 compared to 2003 levels, and 100 percent in 2030.
Existing buildings that undergo renovations of $2.5 million or more would also have to meet the requirements. Federal agencies can apply for waivers to exclude buildings if meeting the mandate is technically or economically impossible.
Today, confusion is rife about where things stand with the rule, experts told InsideClimate News. At the same time, the White House seems unable to decide how cozy it wants to be to the natural gas industry, according to a report in Politico.
In October 2010, the DOE issued its first draft proposal. The agency collected public comments and sent a final plan to the White House for review in August 2011. The White House had 90 days to return the rules to the DOE for adoption, but the proposal is still there, nine months later.
Steven Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., said it's unclear whether the White House is holding onto the plan because it found major problems, or whether it is simply putting off advancing the rule.
Moira Mack, a spokesperson for the White House Office of Management and Budget, which is reviewing the DOE rule, told InsideClimate News it is "not uncommon for review periods to be extended for regulatory actions that require additional time for consideration of public comment and analysis by OMB and all the affected agencies."