The U.S. Green Building Council, which received $3 million from Google, Inc. (GOOG) last year to promote non-toxic materials, has proposed updating its voluntary but widely used Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, standards to give credit to builders that avoid chemicals that pose health risks. Members of the Washington-based council are voting this month on the updated protocols known as LEED 4.
Generally supportive of efficiency programs because they promote the use of insulation and other chemical products, the American Chemistry Council in Washington and other groups say the green-building standards are veering into the trickier area of health policy. They say the new rules will stigmatize chemicals without providing much benefit.
“LEED has a powerful impact on what happens in the marketplace,” said Craig Silvertooth, president of the Center for Environmental Innovation in Roofing, a Washington group whose members include Johns Manville Corp. in Littleton, Colorado. The American Chemistry Council’s members include Dow Chemical Co. (DOW) in Midland, Michigan, and DuPont Co. (DD) in Wilmington, Delaware.
The voluntary green building standards have been embraced by builders looking for ways to cut energy and water use. The green building council says 44 percent of new buildings in 2012 received some level of LEED certification, up from 2 percent in 2005.
“It’s become shorthand for just a better building,” Lane Burt, policy director for the Green Building Council, said in an interview.
Silvertooth said the new green building council standards, if adopted, could effectively blacklist chemicals like titanium dioxide, which provides the properties on “white roofs” that can make it easier to cool buildings.
Titanium dioxide poses little health risk if properly used, Silvertooth said.
Used in everything from household paint to toothpaste, titanium dioxide is listed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health as a potential chemical hazard if inhaled as a dust.
Paula Melton, managing editor of BuildingGreen Inc., which promotes more efficient building construction through a website, said in an e-mail that the proposed LEED credits wouldn’t affect use of titanium dioxide.
“We’ve combed through every draft of LEED v4 and have never seen mention of titanium dioxide or of any system that restricts its use,” Melton said in an e-mail.
The roofing group, the chemistry council and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the biggest business lobbying group, are among 39 organizations behind the American High-Performance Buildings Coalition, which promotes green-building standards different from LEED’s.
They are lobbying Congress to ensure U.S. agencies consider alternatives to LEED when buying new buildings or starting large improvement projects.
Dow doesn’t think the proposed standards “account for the actual exposure risk potential of the building product,” Nancy Lamb, a company spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.
“Dow is very committed to thorough evaluation of the health risk potential of all of our building products and technologies,” Lamb said. “However, we believe this falls under chemical regulation” better managed by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The issue of better energy use is one of several that may delay or block consideration of efficiency legislation, thought to be one of the few energy measures with a chance to pass the divided Congress this year.
The Senate bill, sponsored by Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Republican Rob Portman of Ohio, seeks to promote efficiency standards for buildings. It passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last month in a 19-3 vote.
As one of the few energy bills slated for a Senate floor vote, it is a potential magnet for more contentious amendments, for example, to force approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, the $5.3 billion proposed link between Alberta’s oil sands and U.S. refineries, or to block U.S. Environmental Protection Agency clean-air rules.
Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, is considering adding language that would limit how widely the U.S. government adopts the LEED version 4 standards. Her office said the amendment is not yet drafted.
“Senator Landrieu simply believes that any building efficiency standard used should not discriminate against any one material and is working with her colleagues to find a solution,” a statement from her office states.
Landrieu’s home state includes several petrochemical companies, including Dow.
The U.S. government owns more than 1,000 buildings that are LEED certified, compared with more than 15,800 commercial projects, according to the U.S. Green Building Council. The National Academy of Sciences endorsed the Pentagon’s use of LEED standards in a report released in February.
Advocates of the Shaheen-Portman bill said the amendments could derail legislation designed to be bipartisan.
Language blocking the Green Building Council standards is “exactly the kind of misguided amendment that threatens the purposes of the whole bill,” Franz Matzner, associate director of federal affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an interview.
Following Green Building Council directives, builders earn points that determine the level of LEED rating. Forty points are good enough for a certified rating, the lowest level, while 80 gets to platinum, the highest. There are 110 points in total. Certification can be used to apply for tax credits in some states.
The green building council said improvements to the U.S. Treasury building saves taxpayers $3.5 million a year in energy and leasing costs.
The materials standards at the center of the dispute seek to encourage use of building products that clearly state what chemicals they include and have been certified as safe.
In the year since the dispute began to simmer, Burt said the group has already sought to address chemical companies’ concerns. For example, the original language listed chemicals builders shouldn’t use. Now the language offers credits to buildings constructed with products rated highly by other groups.
“It’s a voluntary program, it’s not a regulation,” Burt said. “It’s ‘choose your own adventure.’ You go after whatever points you want to to get the 40, 50, 60, or 80.”
Builders can earn 2 points by adhering to the materials standards proposed.
While the points are only a small fraction of the total available to builders, Silvertooth said the health provision as written in LEED 4 could discourage builders to purchase some chemicals that are essential in energy efficiency projects.
The Shaheen and Portman bill is S. 761.
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