Watchdog: Accountability

Green group hides environmental ratings of buildings it certifies

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Watchdog,Richard Pollock,Luke Rosiak,Accountability,Energy and Environment

U.S. Green Business Council officials have taken the unusual step of concealing the identities of more than 3,000 buildings the group has certified as “green,” the Washington Examiner has learned.

As part of the “green building movement,” each year the USGBC issues “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design” certifications for buildings that are supposed to be environmentally healthy, safe and efficient.

The LEED certification is described as a “mark of excellence” that helps the public compare “measurable green building design, construction, operations and maintenance solutions” with non-LEED properties, according to USGBC.

USGBC officials also claim LEED buildings enjoy lower operational costs, conserve energy and are healthier and safer for building occupants than conventional buildings.

Such claims are hard to verify with USGBC’s online database, which categorizes one in four of the properties as “confidential,” thus preventing their identification or comparison.

USGBC spokesman Marisa Long said the council does not make such properties public if the owners “wish to keep the information private. As a result, USGBC can neither officially confirm nor deny the existence of projects denoted as confidential other than to identify city and state and total square footage within this online resource.”

The secret properties are 3,132 buildings representing 427 million square feet of building stock or 19 percent of all LEED-certified buildings in the country.

Still, the USGBC is a vigorous advocate of what it calls the “green building movement.” Since 2008, the nonprofit received more than $230 million in tax-free revenue in return for its certifications, according to its IRS 990 tax forms.

Data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics show USGBC spent more than $3 million on federal lobbying during the same period.

Governments at the city, state and federal levels offer lucrative tax credits for environmental upgrades and new construction, much of which are the product of USGBC’s advocacy.

A major mystery is why USBGC lists nearly four out of 10 government buildings as secret. The data show that 114 government buildings are confidential, even though the LEED certification process is funded by taxpayer money.

Environmental secrecy for government buildings doesn’t sit well with Brian Swett, Boston’s chief of energy and environment.

He regularly reports the energy and water use for all Boston’s government buildings. “In terms of keeping that secret? Yeah, I don’t understand that,” he said.

The USGBC also reports 56 percent of LEED public safety buildings are secret. Swett said Boston’s police department data is public on the city’s website, including energy and water consumption.

“Yes, we report on energy and water use for both police department headquarters as well as the district branches,” he said.

Some say cherry-picking the data might undermine the USGBC's case. “Given they are using the data to advocate public policy, they should release the data,” said Todd Myers, environmental director of the nonprofit, Seattle-based Washington Policy Center.

The USGBC’s secret classification policy also conflicts with efforts by many cities and states to require full disclosure of building water and energy use.

At least nine cities and two states mandate large commercial building owners must make public environmental information about their properties. Failure to do so can result in substantial fines.

In fact, many of the buildings on USGBC’s list with concealed environmental performance data appear to be exactly the types of properties owners might wish to publicize.

Nearly half of the LEED-certified retail stores located in malls are classified. A third of the LEED restaurants, medical offices and lodging establishments that have won accreditation are secret.

“I don’t understand why you go through the process of getting certified and not tout it as success,” said Boston’s Swett.

LEED certification can be expensive, taking years to document with architects and engineers. Certification and special consultant costs can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Steven Lacey, a senior editor of Greentechmedia, a business-to-business publication focused on the clean energy industry, said he has never heard of a property owner concealing LEED certification.

“I’ve yet to see building owners in my experience that haven’t disclosed that information. That’s a surprise to me,” he said.

“The only thing that comes off the top of my head is performance,” says Lacey. “If a LEED building is performing worse than other buildings around it, then that is a potential problem,” Lacey said.

“I personally have never been part of a project where we kept it confidential,” said Michele Good, director of sustainability of Akridge Properties, which operates LEED-certified properties in the Washington, D.C. region.

Cliff Majersik, executive director of the nonprofit Institute for Market Transformation, which focuses on building energy efficiency, said full disclosure is critical for markets to function.

“Disclosure is important,” Majersik said. “You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Markets need information to function properly. It’s important having the information so that tenants, buyers, appraisers and everyone else can fully value energy efficiency into their decision.”

USGBC’s Long acknowledged the council’s data isn’t transparent, saying, “As part of the ongoing evolution of LEED, we are working to create more transparent and comprehensive approach to information sharing.”

Washington Examiner data editor and senior investigative reporter Luke Rosiak contributed to this story.

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