Environmental groups take aim at industry-backed green building standards

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Climate Change,PennAve,Lobbying,GSA,Energy and Environment,LEED,Zack Colman

PORTLAND, Ore. — A pair of environmental groups are starting a new campaign against a green building standard backed by the chemicals, timber and plastics industries that's making inroads at the federal and state government levels.

The Sierra Club and Greenpeace are teaming up for "Greenwash Action," which will take shots at the Green Globes building standard. The General Services Administration approved it in November as an alternative to the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED building standards for use in federal construction and renovations.

Environmental opponents described the standards as too relaxed, especially on forest stewardship and disclosure of whether ingredients in building materials are non-toxic.

"They're trying to bring to an underserved sector a system that finds LEED too rigorous," Jason Grant, executive director with Greenwash Action told the Washington Examiner. "They're not going to reach for the high bar."

Green Globes is a ratings system devised by the Portland-based Green Building Initiative, which is supported through annual dues from members that pool largely from the chemicals, timber and plastics industries. The group doesn't lobby, though its members have pressed the federal government to accept the certification standard, according to lobbying disclosure forms.

The Greenwash Action campaign is designed to counteract that lobbying push, which Grant said has contributed to several states banning use of LEED in public construction projects. Much of that has been done through gubernatorial executive orders, though Grant said legislation banning LEED is expected to be filed in the legislatures of timber-heavy Washington state and Oregon next year.

Shaina Sullivan, a Green Building Initiative spokeswoman, rejected charges that Green Globes amounted to "greenwashing." She said the rating system stresses a holistic assessment of a building's energy use, whereas LEED pushes contractors to green up their individual products.

"Because our process is more streamlined, that's a win for all federal agencies," she said during an interview near Green Building Initiative's Portland headquarters. "Now you have a choice."

A GSA evaluation found that LEED met the most federal requirements for building renovations, but Green Globes hit more marks for new buildings, Mafara Hobson, a GSA spokeswoman, told the Examiner in an email.

"This does not mean that the systems are equivalent, rather they both meet most of the government’s minimum requirements, in very different ways," Hobson said.

Green Globes' supporters have criticized LEED for a perceived amount of secrecy behind its standards crafting and its time- and paper-intensive application process. They also have expressed favor for Green Globes' system-wide accounting compared with LEED's focus on individual parts.

Sullivan said that contributed to Green Globes' comparatively cheaper implementation costs. She also said that's why Green Globes departs from LEED on toxic chemicals — she said Green Globes is looking at hazardous exposure from a system-wide level — and timber, as she said LEED's standards are rigorous to the point where it might be difficult to obtain locally sourced wood.

Green Globes is still rarely used, Paul Karrer, project manager with the Alliance to Save Energy's Building Codes Assistance Project, told the Examiner. But the more Green Globes is used in public construction projects, the greater chance its products and standards has to find their way into the private sector — and that's not necessarily a good thing.

"People have a lot of reasons and organizations have a lot of reasons to support new labels," Karrer said. "I don't know how great that is in the long term because there could be a lot of market confusion."

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