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The Hidden Beltway Lobbyists Who Shape Green Building Policy

Poison pill pushed by illegal lobbyists, or exciting, bipartisan energy bill that could change everything? It's up to you.
Paula Melton
May 15, 2013

We’ve been keeping an eye on the sweeping Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act (PDF), introduced by Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D–NH) and Rob Portman (R–Ohio).

The common-sense bill, likely to come to the Senate floor any day now, enjoys broad support across the political spectrum. It would boost the national model energy code for both homes and commercial buildings, support commercial retrofits with financing help, and develop training programs for green building jobs.

Meet the "strategic advocate" behind Green Globes. The president of this organization is also Green Building Initiative's vice president for federal outreach—and claims she doesn't need to register as a lobbyist. 

Screen capture from SAS website.

Money changes everything

But there’s a fly in the ointment: let’s call it Musca lobbyistica. BuildingGreen received an urgent missive from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) this morning (emphasis added):

The chemical lobby is quietly leveraging its multimillion-dollar operation that would ban the federal government from using the LEED green building rating system…. They are carefully crafting an 11th-hour amendment that would require the federal government to only use green building rating systems that are American National Standards Institute (ANSI)-certified. This unprecedented governmental intervention is purposely designed to exclude LEED and create a monopoly for another system they fund and influence. 

By banning LEED, the amendment would cost the federal government money and jeopardize its ability to build green, demonstrate leadership, and continue to save American taxpayers money. LEED has long been recommended by federal agencies after extensive research.

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The amendment would work by effectively upending the federal government’s definition of a “consensus standard”—only allowing certification systems developed through the ANSI process.

We’ll get to why that’s bogus in a minute; first a little background on this ongoing battle over LEED in the federal government.

“Another system”?

The other system in question is Green Globes, first introduced to the U.S. in 2005 by the Green Building Initiative (GBI) to compete with LEED when LEED refused to recognize Big Timber’s pet forestry certification.

To review that history, I highly recommend Lloyd Alter’s investigations into the origins of Green Globes over at Treehugger. Here’s how he put it earlier this year: “Green Globes serves just one purpose: to be a building certification system that is friendlier to big wood and to the plastics industry and to displace LEED.”

And indeed, GBI’s members and supporters—44 in total, including the American Chemistry Council, the American Wood Council, DOW Chemical, the Vinyl Institute, Louisiana Pacific, etc.—certainly have weighty representation from these two industries.

“All of our membership is on our website. It’s not a secret,” Erin Shaffer, vice president for federal outreach at GBI, told me in an interview. She objected to the characterization that GBI has outsized industry support. “There are a ton of [members and supporters]. We’re the only organization that has put one of our tools through the ANSI process—a transparent, open, public process.”

What’s consensus?

The idea that the ANSI process is the only way to develop a standard by consensus is not accepted by anyone, including the federal government itself—yet the chemical industry, the timber industry, and GBI have all been pushing this same talking point for years.

As we wrote in a June 2012 blog post about chemical industry attacks on LEED:

In its recent review of rating systems, GSA noted that LEED was not an ANSI standard but concluded that LEED was developed according to a rigorously transparent consensus process according to on its own definition:

The certification system contains the attributes of a voluntary consensus standards body defined in OMB Circular A-119: openness, balance of interest, due process, an appeal process, and consensus.

What’s more, recent communications between BuildingGreen and GBI belie Shaffer’s characterization of Green Globes as “transparent, open and public.”

When I requested a draft of the pending 2013 version of the Green Globes standard from Sharene Rekow, GBI’s vice president for business development, so I could write about Green Globes’ treatment of whole-building life-cycle assessment for an EBN feature article, I was denied access to the drafts and directed to a website where I could “register for and order the ANSI Standard” (which is not, to our knowledge, even the same thing as the Green Globes rating system—but that’s a story for another day!).

Rekow added, “We are writing an article that encompasses the following outline, and we look to have the article ready by the middle of June. This piece will explain the whole-building life-cycle assessment and is the information that we want published about the approach.” Apparently journalists only get to see—and republish word for word—the parts GBI “wants published.”

By contrast, you can easily download multiple draft versions of LEED v4 , at no charge, on the USGBC website.

What’s a lobbyist?

The building standard itself isn’t the only thing that’s shrouded about GBI’s activities. Our investigations strongly suggest that GBI is effectively a means for the chemical and timber industries to lobby local, state, and federal governments under the guise of third-party legitimacy.

Although nonprofit organizations are free to spend up to 20% of their total budgets on federal lobbying without having to report their activities on tax forms, most 501(c)(3) organizations stay far, far away from that threshold and opt to file Schedule H to report their activities even if they don’t approach the 20%, according to Sheila Krumholz, executive director at the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan policy group that tracks campaign funding and spending on federal lobbying.

Nonprofits that deny their activities are actually lobbying could be risking their special tax status by failing to register their lobbyists or failing to track the amount spent on lobbying, she adds. So what counts as lobbying, anyway?

“It’s a pretty low bar for somebody who’s really involved in this world of government relations and federal advocacy,” she said. “The second time you pick up the phone or email a lawmaker or staffer, you are a lobbyist.”

Is GBI ‘engaged in something illegal’?

“I talk to a lot of people in a lot of the agencies,” Shaffer told BuildingGreen—but she denied that she’s a lobbyist. “We are not a lobbying organization. It’s really educational work, not lobbying.”

In addition to her work as vice president for federal outreach at GBI, Shaffer is president and cofounder of Strategic Advocacy Solutions (SAS), which claims it can help its clients “win in Washington, D.C. or the state capitols” and “communicate your policy positions to decision-makers.”

“It doesn’t matter what you call it: all that matters are these criteria for reporting,” counters Krumholz. “One person’s ‘lobbying’ is another person’s ‘education.’”

She asks, “Is it possible that GBI is engaged in something illegal or risking its nonprofit status? Absolutely. It seems that both GBI and SAS are engaged in activities that are very similar to lobbying and are not reporting their activity. Frankly, it can be hard to tell from the outside whether an organization should be registering and reporting its income and activities. But based on their own marketing materials, it sounds like they might need to register; it merits scrutiny.”

USGBC lobbies too

GBI is not the only lobbyist on the block. As we’ve reported previously, about one-half of one percent of USGBC’s total expenses in 2011 were for lobbying. All USGBC lobbying expenses going back to 2005 can be tracked on opensecrets.org. The organization currently has one registered lobbyist on staff, legislative director Bryan Howard, according to the organization.

How is this different from GBI’s approach? At least on the surface, it’s happening above board—much like the organization’s LEED development process.

That doesn’t mean USGBC doesn’t bear equal scrutiny with GBI, which is why BuildingGreen submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to a number of federal agencies earlier this year to try to ferret out just how much lobbying about LEED and Green Globes is going on regularly. We’ll be getting those responses in the next few weeks and will keep you updated.

Back to that amendment…

“We are strong supporters of the Shaheen-Portman bill as drafted,” says Lane Burt at USGBC. “There are good reasons this bill has a whole lot of bipartisan support. This is an attempt to latch on a special-interest wish list to a bill that otherwise everyone agrees with.” There have been no hearings on the content of this amendment, he told BuildingGreen. “That’s not a way to make a big policy decision.”

The bill may be introduced as early as tomorrow, May 16, and background sources suggest that Mary Landrieu (D–Louisiana)—who enjoys the strong support of the plastics industry, as seen in this commercial paid for by the American Chemistry Council—will propose the amendment.

Whatever your opinions about LEED and Green Globes, this might be a good time to call your senator to ensure that public comments—and not just lobbyists—are heard.


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July 11, 2013 - 7:35 pm

As some of you know the Green Building Initiative is releasing the new version of Green Globes for New Construction which is based on ANSI/GBI 01-2010," Green Building Assessment Protocol for Commercial Buildings." A full technical manual is available at http://www.thegbi.org/assets/pdfs/Green-Globes-NC-Technical-Reference-Ma...

July 11, 2013 - 7:58 pm

Charles, it's great that they have finally released something we can read! Thanks for sharing it.

July 9, 2013 - 9:24 am

We've just received word from international construction firm Skanska that the company has dropped its membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because of the trade group's anti-LEED stance. You may see more coverage of this soon.

July 9, 2013 - 12:29 pm

I'm impressed. Way to go, Skanska.

I'm not familiar with the Chamber's opposition to LEED but they have been very vocally opposed to any legislation that limits greenhouse gas emissions. Kate Sheppard with Mother Jones magazine (formerly with Grist) has done some fabulous reporting on this.

July 9, 2013 - 10:22 am

Good for them for finding corporate values and sticking to them; especially after the CEO writes an Op/Ed piece like this: http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-06-30/business/40292840_1_leed-c...

Congratulations, Skanska.

May 22, 2013 - 7:17 am

Thanks to feedback from an alert reader, I just updated the article to reflect the fact that Green Globes was not developed by the Green Building Initiative. It was originally developed in Canada, based on BREEAM, and was imported to the U.S. by GBI later—a point that's obviously very important to those who originally developed the rating system. My apologies!

For the record, I don't think this changes or excuses GBI's subsequent lack of transparency—all while accusing others of the offense they themselves are committing.

May 22, 2013 - 9:33 am

GG history from the GBI website: http://www.thegbi.org/products/green-globes/history.shtml

Oh what a tangled web we weave... ;o)

May 15, 2013 - 10:40 pm

Here is what I care about the most when it comes to any rating system I would support and model my business after:

1 Will it actually help the environment?
2 Transparency (close to number 1 because all systems can be corrupted)
3 Cost (complete cost including design)

Here are the two links that are important to not allow banning of any rating system. Competition and hard work is good:

With both of these rating systems competing, I know a common ground is going to be reached because we all do realize change needs to happen. I really believe anyone with a technical/science background understands that we are hurting our environment.

On the flip side, you can't force chemical companies to change literally 5-15 $300-$600 million dollar plants overnight (although they should) to produce a new type of chemicals/electronics/other components that compete with companies that do not care without a backlash (sad fact). The truth is that they are major "investors" on Capitol Hill (money that could best be spent in retrofitting old processes to new cleaner ones). LEED can learn from this and will work with companies in a clear path to success.

Internationally LEED is a big deal and is making positive changes across the construction industry in many developing countries that have little to limited building codes. I support an open clear system that we can all contribute on.

May 15, 2013 - 3:04 pm

Thanks, Ivy, for the links!

For everyone else:
Ivy Glasgow's first link (https://forcechange.com/64616/dont-restrict-standards-for-energy-saving-...) has language for a petition letter (about half way down the page) that you can copy and modify as you like to send to your senators.
You can find the contact information for your senators, including both phone numbers and links to their "contact" websites here:

May 15, 2013 - 2:35 pm

Thanks for letting us all know about this. I haven't personally looked into Green Globes, but I do think that exposing the money trail is a good place to start.
A quick google search yielded a couple of online petitions already started on this topic:

May 17, 2013 - 4:40 pm

Just a quick update: the scuttlebutt now is that the energy bill won't come to the floor until early June. However, we've also received word of another amendment currently being pushed by the gas industry: an attempt to undo the 2030 net-zero targets established by federal law in 2007. We'll continue coverage of this bill to the extent possible here and over at BuildingGreen in the next few weeks.

May 17, 2013 - 11:36 am

I think that is very well said.
We should all be on the same green team, with fair competion among the different systems. Competition will enrich all the green programs. No program should be trying to undercut another- it makes all of us look less credible.

May 16, 2013 - 6:05 pm

Thanks for this excellent article, Paula - and for sounding the alarm! I contacted both of my Senators and all of the members of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Several of my colleagues have done the same.

I've been following the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act for a long time now. I am thrilled about the strong bipartisan support. I am impressed by the focus on logic, processes, and outcomes. I am pleased that baseline will be ICC codes and ASHRAE standards.

It makes sense that the Act doesn't refer to voluntary programs at all. Federal legislation should not dictate voluntary programs. Instead, the market should determine which energy efficiency and green building programs will survive.

I know that Green Globes has become a viable alternative to LEED over the past decade, but I am DEEPLY DISAPPOINTED by the 11th hour, behind-the-scenes, political shenanigans that GBI and Strategic Advocacy Solutions have engaged in to derail LEED.

LEED is the most effective sustainable building market transformation tool that I've seen in my 30+ years in this business. LEED is making serious impact today - and now a gaggle of supposed sustainability professionals want to derail it with backroom lobbying? Unbelievable!

The covert lobbying efforts show that the GBI/SAS mission is tainted. Their primary goal is obviously NOT promoting sustainability in the built environment. Instead, their apparent goal is for their program to "win", by hook or by crook, even at the expense of enhanced efficiency and sustainability.

I am disgusted.

May 16, 2013 - 1:16 pm

Charles Kibert, I would suggest editing your post to state for transparency that you are on the board of directors for the program you talk about.

May 15, 2013 - 4:56 pm

Dr Kibert, congratulations on your appointment (election) to the Green Building Institute's (the "parent" of Green Globes) Board of Directors: http://www.thegbi.org/about-gbi/who-we-are/board.shtml

May 16, 2013 - 6:15 pm

Although I’m a larger supporter of LEED, I believe Green Globes is an alternative. The concepts are the same between both systems. "Integrated Design" is a credit offered in the soon to be released LEED V4. LEED is not any less advanced thinking than Green Globes. I can point out several aspects of LEED that make Green Globes less advanced.
Personally, I support LEED for the fact that it requires contractors to produce documented proof that they are installing the actual product and the harmful VOC or technical data to meet the credit requirements. Yes it cost a little more to get the docmented proof and have someone verify each element, but worth it. Green Globes requires less documentation and "takes the contractors word for it".
Unfortunately, with my over 200 projects of field experience, some contractors or subcontractors cannot be trusted to purchase the proper materials to meet the certification criteria.
As a Construction Manager, and Architect, I see people trying to by-pass the LEED credits when required to supply documentation.I see Green Globes as by-passing the detailed information and a "too loose" of a certification process.

Does it have a nice integrated design process element to it? Yes it does. Does it keep people accountable to require documentation proof? No. That what I consider one big difference.

If you want to take LEED to the next level, Living Building Challenge is what I call "LEED on Steroids". It's an excellent certification process, but requires a more sensitive to chemical review via the "Red List".
I tell people LEED isn't perfect, but it's the best thing out there from a true consensus based group of volunteers.

May 15, 2013 - 3:40 pm


I believe the general part of the article is the money trail not being entirely transparent. Without clear transparency people will always believe it is being influenced and will change after clear government mandates are in place. Great now but possibly interesting later after we start treating it like the golden egg. Competition is good and I am sure LEED is working hard for success and better start paying more then .5% on lobbying.

Fear not Charles! I honestly believe the younger generation has no backwards ideas about how we are treating our planet and a total disregard and "ban" on environmental construction won't happen in our future.

May 15, 2013 - 3:29 pm

Charles, I appreciate your comments. However, I hope you can be more specific about any aspects of Paula's article that you consider "unwarranted and unfair," or "unprofessional and rash"?

You defend the substance of the Green Globes rating system, but that's not the topic of this article. The article focuses on the lobbying effort of an interconnected web of moneyed interests who are portraying Green Globes as a consensus standard, and LEED as not. And furthermore, trying to write LEED out of federal buildings with the stroke of a pen, even as the GSA has been in the midst of a deliberative process involving studies, testimony, and public comment, that would answer the question of what rating system(s) to use in federal buildings in a transparent way.

BuildingGreen's mission is to support transformation of the building industry toward environmental sustainability—not to support LEED. This recent article on LEED v4 is an example of how we bring to light criticism of LEED that otherwise might not be covered in the media. If you can point to any unfair reporting on our part, please do.

May 15, 2013 - 3:26 pm

Charles, lots of people are doing very good things with Green Globes, and I definitely agree that competition keeps everyone honest. That's the whole idea behind market-based, volunteer rating systems in the first place. I don't want to paint Green Globes itself with the same brush, but GBI is not being transparent about its rating system development process nor its lobbying practices. I don't think it's unfair or biased to say so. I hope that GBI hears supporters like you, thinks twice about working with big industry players to craft anti-LEED lobbying messages, and focuses instead on developing its rating system above board and on a level playing field with others.

May 15, 2013 - 2:55 pm

The statements by Paula Melton about industry influences on Green Globes are both unwarranted and unfair. In fact Green Globes has its roots in BREEAM and provides a sorely need alternative to LEED, which itself has received enormous criticism for its shortcomings. I have been involved in both LEED and Green Globes projects and I find little difference between the two in terms of assessment outcomes. In many respects Green Globes, which gives credit for LCA, integrated design, and superior acoustics, reflects more advanced thinking than LEED. Building Green's unflagging support of LEED as being the arbiter of what constitutes green building in the U.S. is not in keeping with its tradition of neutrality and fairness. I totally disagree with the attempts by politicians to ban LEED, which is unacceptable. Competition among competing products, including building assessment tools, is good, advances the state of the art, and results in much better green building rating systems. Unprofessional and rash statements about either LEED or Green Globes are counterproductive. Supporters of green building, no matter their rating system of choice, should work together. After all, the next step by our erstwhile politicians will be to ban all green building rating systems!