For the third time in a year, the fossil fuel industry and its allies in Congress are trying to eliminate a trailblazing law that requires new federal buildings to be largely free of fossil fuels by 2030.
But this time the effort is gaining momentum—in part because it has surprising support from mainstream energy efficiency advocacy groups in Washington D.C.
Their decision to back industry has ruffled the feathers of several environmental organizations and green building advocates, who say the law is critical to decrease America's dependence on fossil fuels. Some feel deceived.
"It was a slap in the face," said Ed Mazria, founder of the New Mexico-based Architecture 2030, a building sector advocacy group that focuses on climate change.
At issue is a rule known as Section 433 of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which was passed under former President George W. Bush. The law was expected to change the way federal structures are built by forcing the U.S. government to shift from using coal, oil and natural gas in its buildings to using renewable energy. Advocates say it would accelerate the market for green building technologies and create a model for carbon-neutral construction, given that the government operates more than 500,000 buildings.
But Section 433 never went into effect due to hold-ups at the Department of Energy. Now, new Senate legislation would repeal Section 433 and replace it with a rule that is friendlier to fossil fuels.
The bill was introduced by Sens. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). And one of its biggest champions is the American Gas Association, the trade group that represents natural gas companies and utilities. The association says that Section 433 would stigmatize the use of natural gas in green architecture and harm its reputation as a cleaner-burning fuel, as the country experiences a dramatic boom in natural gas drilling.
Jake Rubin, a spokesman for the gas association, said eliminating natural gas as a green building technology "ignores a clean, efficient and affordable way to help achieve these objectives."
But whether natural gas is a clean fossil fuel remains an open question. Natural gas plants release about half as many greenhouse gas emissions as coal plants, but natural gas pipelines and storage containers leak methane—another potent climate-changing gas. Some studies suggest that when considering emissions along the full natural gas production lifecycle, the fossil fuel could be worse for the climate than coal.
"Natural gas is still a carbon-based fuel ... and comes with consequences outside of just burning it," said Corey Shott, a senior legislative representative for the National Wildlife Federation, which is fighting to keep Section 433. "NWF would prefer to see energy efficiency and renewables move forward over increasing natural gas" in buildings.
Hoeven-Manchin would abolish Section 433 and replace the rule with tougher versions of two existing energy efficiency mandates. The bill would increase a requirement to reduce energy use in federal buildings to 45 percent by 2020, compared to 2003 levels—up from the current mandate of 30 percent by 2015. It would also extend federal "performance standards" that today apply only to new construction to major renovations.
The changes would allow the federal government to increase buildings' efficiency without having to scale back fossil fuels.
Ryan Bernstein, the chief of staff for Sen. Hoeven, called it "energy neutral."
"It doesn't matter on the electron coming in, it just means that we're using less electricity," he said.
The "repeal and replace" approach has won the unlikely backing of two major energy efficiency advocacy organizations—the Alliance to Save Energy, a coalition of more than 140 groups, and the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a nonprofit research organization.
Both groups opposed previous attempts to void the green building law. Both were swayed this time, they say, largely because they believe that replacing Section 433 with enhanced efficiency rules could result in more energy savings than the old rule, but also because the bill would be easier to implement than the long-delayed Section 433.
For years, Section 433 has been stuck in a procedural black hole.
The rule requires all new and majorly renovated federal buildings to become carbon neutral by 2030—meaning, any emissions the buildings emit must be offset by renewable energy. But the Department of Energy, which is responsible for implementing Section 433, has struggled with how to define carbon-neutral construction. And it has faced a barrage of concern and complaints from builders and energy service companies who are worried the rule would make retrofits more expensive and harm their businesses.