Ignore the Venezuelan Uprising and Check Out This Sparkly New Building

Did you hear the big news out of Venezuela this week? No, not that news . An oil-and-gas engineering company received a fancy environmental certification for a new building. I know, right?

Some press releases are notable for what they don’t say, and this week’s winner lapped the runners-up. There isn’t room on the Internet to explain every omission in this little gem, titled “Vepica’s New Headquarters Awarded First LEED Certification in Venezuela,” but here are three reasons it sailed straight into the greenwash bin:

  1. About 1.5 million square feet of building space is certified every day by LEED, the global standard for green design. At this point, an office-building certification isn't news, even if it's in Venezuela.
  2. A green building doesn’t necessarily make a green company. Vepica is an engineering firm that specializes in large-scale oil and gas projects. You know what’s bad for the environment? Large-scale oil and gas projects.
  3. Venezuela!

In some ways it’s not fair to poke fun at Vepica. In a country known for fossil-fuel waste, Vepica decided to make a building that recycles rainwater and draws some of its power from solar panels. It's a start.

The problem comes when you contrast this sparkly new building with what’s happening in the streets around it, where "sustainability" these days could mean just keeping the streets free of flaming road blocks.

Venezuela is one of the most climate-challenged countries on the planet. The oil-rich nation subsidizes gasoline so much it costs less than water -- about 4 cents a gallon. Fuel-efficient cars don’t tend to fly off the lots if it costs less to fill a gas tank than to buy a cup of gas-station coffee. Venezuela hands out gas worth about $32 billion a year, even as the country struggles to pay its bills and keep its people out of poverty.

The debate over cheap gasoline is one discontent of many contributing to violent protests that have torn up Venezuelan cities since Feb. 12, leaving 14 people dead and streets strewn with smoking debris.

Nicolas Maduro, who was narrowly elected president of Venezuela less than a year ago, is struggling to maintain control after annual inflation reached 56 percent and shortages of everyday goods and medicines brought protesters to the streets. The inflation was so bad, police were deployed (ineffectually) to force businesses to cut prices.

Maduro has proposed raising gas prices to help patch the country’s dismal finances. The last time a Venezuelan president tried to cut the gas subsidy, in 1989, the country was torn by riots that killed hundreds of people.

"Vepica company policy is not to comment on politics," Rebekah Epstein, a spokeswoman from JTS Communications Inc., representing Vepica, wrote in an email.

In some ways, Vepica’s announcement is a metaphor for other climate-change efforts around the world: well-intentioned but inadequate.

Wal-Mart, for example, gets a lot of praise (including on this blog) for topping the 2013 ranking of U.S. companies using solar. At 89 megawatts of capacity, the company positively trounced second-place Costco. But like Vepica’s new HQ, if you zoom out a little, this hardly looks like an achievement. Green power accounts for just 4 percent of Wal-Mart’s total electricity use.

That’s not a game changer; it’s a distraction from the problem . And if that’s what you’re after, you might be better off clicking on this video from the magical pet laboratory:

Photographer: Cynthia Pringle/Corbis
Photographer: Cynthia Pringle/Corbis

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