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Does LEED Kill Jobs? Lobbyist Claims Don't Hold Up

 This is Part 1 in our "Wood Wars" series.

Part 2: FSC and Beyond--LEED 2012 Buries the "Wood Wars" Hatchet

Both of these decisions stemmed from a common root: the "wood wars" between advocates of the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). An FSC victory of sorts was declared in 2010, MRc7 in LEED for New Construction 2009) to the exclusion of other certification systems, but that turns out to have been just one more battle in an ongoing conflict. As you may know, the U.S. Congress tried to restrict the military's use of LEED in its recent budget law (it's probably not going to work, as we reported a couple weeks ago). Around the same time, the governor of Maine made it illegal for State buildings to pursue LEED certification at any level.

Senator Roger Wicker and Maine Governor Paul LePage both attempted to make an economic argument for their choices. By promoting FSC lumber, the claim goes, the LEED rating systems harm producers of homegrown forestry products--hurting the economy and killing jobs.

Global vs. domestic certification

Exhibit A in the economic case against LEED's preferential treatment of FSC is the fact that most forestlands certified by FSC are outside the U.S. "100% of SFI-certified forests are in North America," said Kathy Abusow, president and CEO of SFI. "90% of FSC forests are outside the U.S. You don't have to be a statistician to know that not recognizing SFI is a problem for domestic forests, communities, products, and jobs."

You also don't have to be a logician to see that Abusow's conclusion does not follow from these facts. While it's true that FSC certifies forests around the globe--and also that SFI currently certifies almost 30% more forestland in North America--what we really need to know is whether architects are specifying imported lumber instead of domestic lumber because of LEED's FSC-only policy.

Corey Brinkema, president of FSC–US, argues that it's not cost-effective to import dimensional lumber--which means that people who are specifying FSC lumber are unlikely to add to the cost premium by getting it from overseas. Furthermore, he said, "There is plenty of FSC-certified supply in the U.S. to be able to provide the necessary wood for all the green buildings in the U.S. and many other industries that are desiring responsible wood."

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When I pressed her about whether foreign dimensional lumber is really in competition with domestic dimensional lumber, Abusow simply stuck to her guns: "90% of FSC certifications are abroad, and I don't need to go into depth to know that that's an issue. And so I don't."

Getting credit for local wood

Apparently the Maine executive branch feels the same way--not least of all because SFI has been lobbying in the state, as Abusow confirmed during our call. She claims that LePage's executive order means "wood products from Maine can definitely be used in Maine green buildings."

Bill Beardsley, Commissioner of the Maine Department of Conservation, echoed these sentiments in a press release about the "expanded use of green building materials," explaining that the move "means that the local community college will be able to build using the certified-wood products from the local sawmill."

Let's also keep in mind that LEED doesn't require you to use any wood at all. Certified wood, local wood, rapidly renewable materials: these are all things you can get credits for if you choose to. They are not prerequisites that you must achieve in order to seek LEED certification. Buildings made of concrete, steel, and other materials achieve LEED certification without so much as an FSC-certified toothpick in them every day.Anyone familiar with LEED, however, knows that there are credits for both locally sourced and rapidly renewable materials. You can get credit for wood products from the local sawmill regardless of whether it's certified wood or not.

If anything, it could be argued that LEED has stimulated the wood market by incentivizing those buildings to include some wood veneer here or wood flooring there to make them eligible for any or all of these three credits.

Outlawing LEED might hurt Maine paper mills

"We have some 4.7 million acres of certified lands in Maine," said Brinkema at FSC–US. "The state truly has a competitive advantage in providing responsibly sourced forest products to the LEED marketplace. With that executive order, they are more or less giving up that competitive advantage."

It's not just the lumber market that could be hurt, according to John Gunn, senior program leader at the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences. "To me it's misguided," said Gunn. "In Maine still, the engines of the forest economy here are the coated paper mills--the mills that make the magazine and catalogue paper. Especially in the downturn here, the FSC component of their market share has been critical."

Given the fact that pulp wood and lumber often come from the same tree trunk, Gunn is concerned about the implications of the order: "If the government reduces demand for the FSC lumber side, that could reduce availability for the paper side," he said. "For example, if some landowners were to drop their FSC certificates because of that, it could reduce the amount of available FSC pulpwood, which endangers pulp mills. It is a narrow view of the implications for the forest products sector."

Does a life-cycle approach make a difference?

After we'd first reported on the military appropriations bill, it came to our attention through Chris Cheatham's Green Building Law Update that one of the people instrumental in getting LEED restrictions added to the bill was Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi--and that LEED's preferential treatment of FSC was apparently behind his reasoning.

"Standards should take into consideration the full life cycle of wood products, including the environmental benefits provided by our domestic reforestation programs," said Wicker in a statement. "After completing this study, the Department of Defense should use credible standards that more accurately assess U.S. wood products."

I'm still trying to puzzle out just what Wicker is trying to say here, but I have a feeling it has something to do with the new transparency credits that are being hashed out in the LEED 2012 draft. (Watch EBN for coverage of the third public comment draft soon!)


As we discussed in our recent feature article on product transparency, life-cycle assessment does not do a very good job of capturing the local impacts of harvesting raw materials, like wood and minerals, which is one of the reasons we favor a combination of life-cycle assessment and third-party certifications like FSC and SFI. We'll be keeping a sharp eye on any attempts by third-party certifiers to use life-cycle assessment as an excuse to settle for lower standards. (FSC fiercely opposes the transparency credits in the 2012 draft precisely because it fears life-cycle assessment could make SFI's standards for forestry practices look just as good as FSC's.)

What's your verdict?

I've probably made it pretty clear where I stand on the LEED-as-job-killer line. I don't think the arguments hold up under even the tiniest amount of scrutiny. I began my research in good faith and gave SFI a chance to make a credible argument that might justify its lobbying efforts.

I'm afraid SFI's president telling me "I don't need to go into depth" just doesn't cut the mustard.

But I could have missed vital evidence. Might LEED really be a job killer? Could FSC be an accessory to this chilling crime? What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

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"Wood Wars" Continue, with Military Losing


The U.S. Congress is calling a halt to certain military spending on green building in a newly passed defense authorization bill (H.R. 1540). The bill prohibits use of Department of Defense funds to achieve LEED Gold or Platinum, with waivers possible if a cost-benefit analysis for the project can demonstrate payback. Exceptions may also be made without a special waiver if achieving Gold or Platinum “imposes no additional cost.”

The bill also requires that the Secretary of Defense submit a cost-benefit report by June 30, 2012 on the sustainable design standards used by the military for new construction and renovations. The report will look at cost, payback, and return on investment of each level of LEED certification individually, of LEED volume certification, and of ASHRAE standards 90.1 and 189.1.

The bill “represents a rollback of the federal government at the forefront of pushing green building and LEED,” according to green building attorney Shari Shapiro, Esq. “Over the last five years, the federal government has been one of the largest customers for LEED,” she told EBN, and she sees indications in other legislation that Congress is trying to “push back at the use of LEED particularly but also green building in general.”

The General Services Administration (GSA), part of the executive branch of government, has responded to executive orders by requiring LEED Gold certification for all new construction and major renovations of federal buildings—putting GSA and Congress on a potential collision course. According to Shapiro, when an executive order and congressional legislation are in direct conflict, the matter often ends up in court—and the legislative branch almost always prevails.

In a similar move, Maine Governor Paul LePage has signed an executive order that effectively bans the use of LEED—formerly required by law—in State construction and renovation projects. The order requires that green building rating systems used for State buildings must offer equal recognition of wood products certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the American Tree Farm System, and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification systems (an international group allied with SFI).

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Certified wood credits in the LEED rating systems recognize only materials certified by FSC—and statements suggest that some federal legislators had this in mind while writing the military appropriations bill.

For more information:

The Library of Congress

Green Products Certification Report


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Georgia Bans LEED Over Certified Wood Credits


Following in Maine’s footsteps, the State of Georgia has effectively banned LEED certification for State building projects.


Governor Nathan Deal’s executive order (PDF), echoing language used by Maine Governor Paul LePage, requires green building standards that equally recognize three forestry standards—the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), the American Tree Farm System, and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The Governor’s office claims that “recognizing all forest certifications equally will promote sustainable forestry in our state and will help create thousands of jobs while maintaining our strong outdoor heritage.” The ban does not apply to school district building projects but does apply to State-funded colleges and universities.

LEED offers optional certified wood credits only for FSC-certified wood, but incentives are available for locally sourced materials—meaning that even non-certified local wood can be used to attain optional LEED credits.

BuildingGreen’s investigative series on the “wood wars" examines claims and motives behind recent LEED bans.

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For more information:

Office of the Governor of Georgia 


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Chemical Industry Attacks LEED: We Check the Facts

This story is cross-posted from our sister site, BuildingGreen.com.

A developing focus on chemicals of concern in the LEED rating systems could make federal buildings less energy-efficient, according to the American Chemistry Council (ACC).

In recent letters to the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight and to a number of representatives in the U.S. Congress (PDF), ACC and others also claim that LEED v4 (formerly known as LEED 2012) is not “science-based” and does not use a “true consensus approach” to development.

LEED: “a tool to punish chemical companies”?

The latter document went to a group of legislators who have echoed ACC’s position in their own letter (PDF) to the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) pointing to “arbitrary chemical restrictions” and claiming LEED is “becoming a tool to punish chemical companies.” See Lloyd Alter’s incisive coverage at Treehugger for more background on the congressional letter to GSA.

Below, we look at each of AAC’s claims and separate the truth from the lies. But first…

Why this attack matters

The federal government, including the military, is the single largest user of the LEED rating systems. According to data provided by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), 7% of LEED-certified projects and 11.5% of those pending certification are federal government buildings. The public sector as a whole (federal, state, and local governments combined) makes up a whopping 27% of LEED-certified projects, and smaller governments could follow the federal lead on LEED. Use of LEED by these entities has, over the last 12 years, helped develop green practices and products across the industry.<--break->

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Both GSA and the Department of Defense are currently reviewing a number of green building rating systems and codes, taking a hard look at their alignment with federal government goals, including energy and cost savings as well as toxic chemical avoidance.

As that continues, we can probably expect more intense lobbying by more and more industries along similar lines. How much traction they get remains to be seen, and fact-checking makes a difference.

CLAIM: Chemical credits will eliminate certain materials from LEED buildings

ACC argues that a new focus on chemicals of concern will mean that project teams will not be able to choose certain materials. “Energy-efficient materials such as insulation, reflective roofing, piping, and wiring could be targeted for ‘avoidance’ by LEED [v4],” said Cal Dooley, CEO at ACC.

USGBC response: According to Brendan Owens, vice president for LEED technical development at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), “There is no ‘red list’ of banned chemicals or products” in LEED v4. Rather, the proposed credits “are focused on encouraging the use of materials known to have desirable characteristics from a human health perspective,” and “the responsible use of any particular product will not disqualify project teams from achieving certification.”

BuildingGreen Fact Check: LEED does not ban any materials except ozone-depleting refrigerants that are targeted for phase-out by international treaty.

The third Public Comment draft of LEED v4 did include a list of chemicals that could be avoided to earn one or two points; this list was removed from the fourth Public Comment draft in response to public comments and was replaced with a reference to the European Union’s REACH protocol.

LEED project teams who choose to pursue the material avoidance credits only need to address a small percentage of products to earn the one or two points. They may choose alternative materials or design options to meet energy-efficiency needs in insulation, roofing, and other areas—and there are plenty of environmentally preferable options that don’t sacrifice performance. The point structure of LEED heavily emphasizes energy efficiency, and there is no incentive to sacrifice that for chemical avoidance.

When I suggested to Dooley that people could simply choose alternatives, he replied, “It does not appear that USGBC has conducted any analysis of the alternatives to these products or demonstrated that there are equally performing alternatives available to builders.”

Dooley does have a valid point—that the LEED requirements would push some projects into areas where development of market options is needed. But that’s part of the “market transformation” that USGBC is working to do with LEED: to push buildings in a greener, healthier direction and assume that the money spent by those projects will stimulate the market to follow. The analysis that Dooley suggests should have been done would make more sense for a mandatory code requirement than for an optional credit.

CLAIM: Chemical credits will reduce energy efficiency

ACC contends that credits for chemical avoidance detract from LEED’s energy goals. Its recent letter to legislators praised the lawmakers for their claim that “the proposed LEED 2012 criteria will make federal buildings less energy efficient[,] resulting in increased costs to taxpayers.” That group of lawmakers in their own letter to GSA stated that LEED v4 would be “counterproductive in the mission to develop more sustainable and energy efficient building codes.”

USGBC response: This characterization is “a false dichotomy,” said Owens. “Sustainability requires a holistic approach to balance multiple fundamental priorities.” That said, Owens told BuildingGreen, “LEED’s commitment to energy efficiency and climate change mitigation and adaptation has never been stronger, and nothing proposed in LEED v4 changes this significant focus.” Owens pointed to the “seven overarching system goals” that drive LEED, which address not only energy and water conservation but also human health, biodiversity, and sustainable material resource cycles.

BuildingGreen Fact Check: It is false to suggest that chemical avoidance will come at the expense of energy efficiency.

Proposed chemical credits are a miniscule percentage of the whole of LEED, and there is no requirement to achieve them, while tough energy prerequisites remain.

But it’s not just USGBC that views sustainable building holistically. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) is about more than energy conservation. Green building rating systems are to be evaluated according to a number of criteria:

  • “Efficient and sustainable use” of energy, water, and natural resources
  • Use of renewable energy sources
  • Improved indoor environmental quality
  • Reduced impacts from transportation
  • “Such other criteria as the Federal Director determines to be appropriate”

These other criteria currently include “system maturity” and “usability.” The federal government also compares rating systems against its Guiding Principles, which include the sustainability of materials and resources.

Not only will avoidance of certain chemicals and materials not reduce energy efficiency, but energy efficiency—by a long shot—is not the only criterion the federal government itself uses to evaluate green building rating systems.

CLAIM: Chemical credits will kill jobs

ACC is also claiming that the new Avoidance of Chemicals of Concern Credit will hurt the economy and cost jobs. As the forestry industry has proven, playing the “jobs card” is a guaranteed way to get attention—but the card is not always backed up by data.

BuildingGreen Fact Check: ACC has no data to back its claim.

Dooley did not have specific numbers on the potential economic impact of the new Avoidance of Chemicals of Concern credit, saying only, “Forcing the avoidance of popular and proven building materials would undoubtedly hurt the producers of these products” and citing data about how many jobs the chemical industry supports in Michigan and Ohio. Past evidence, however, suggests that innovation encourages market growth and helps create jobs.

The language of “forcing avoidance” gets to the crux of the issue and reinforces a common misunderstanding about LEED: that credits are the same as requirements. They’re not. Only the prerequisites are required; credits are a menu to choose from. You can completely skip chemical avoidance and still achieve LEED certification.

CLAIM: Chemical credits are not science-based

ACC told BuildingGreen, “A truly science-based approach would consider all facts, not selectively chosen attributes of ingredients in products. The avoidance and listings credits take a hazard-only approach, excluding the questions of exposure or actual risk.”

BuildingGreen Fact Check: It’s true that the chemical credits emphasize a hazard-avoidance approach. It’s false to claim that this approach is not science-based.

Both a hazard-avoidance approach and a risk-assessment approach to toxic chemicals are science-based. The proposed chemical credits in LEED (which are still evolving) currently reference European REACH legislation and the Green Screen for Safer Chemicals. Both of these have a precautionary orientation—meaning they favor chemicals scientifically proven to be safer. (Regulations in the U.S. tend to require that chemicals be proven unsafe before their use can be restricted.) Both REACH and Green Screen are backed by rigorous scientific research and review.

The associated lists target major hazards for which an avoidance strategy makes sense—particularly in the absence of sufficiently rigorous studies and data on exposure, since neither the chemical industry nor the government has chosen to invest in the research needed to provide that data. These substances include persistent, bioaccumulative toxic chemicals, to which eventual exposure is almost assured.

CLAIM: USGBC does not use a consensus approach

ACC has also accused USGBC of not using a “true” consensus-based approach. “USGBC is an ANSI-accredited organization but has not taken the next steps and completed the requirements of an ANSI standard,” Dooley said. “The internal committees…appear to lack participation of appropriately qualified experts.”

Dooley added that “in a true consensus process, USGBC would have to provide technical support for the material avoidance or material ingredient listing credits.” When I asked Dooley whether ACC had participated in the process, he responded that the group had submitted public comments “that were ignored.”

USGBC response: Owens called this line of attack “a distraction from the substantive issues,” adding, “LEED is developed in accordance with a rigorously inclusive process.  We have received more than 22,000 public comments and have responded to each individually. We work cooperatively with industries, and LEED standards are set in a consensus-driven, transparent manner led by technical experts in their fields.”

BuildingGreen Fact Check: It’s true that LEED is not an ANSI standard. It’s false to say that it is not a consensus-based standard.

The federal government defers to consensus standards but does not require the rating systems it uses to be ANSI standards. ANSI defines specific requirements for stakeholder balance and consensus, but this is not the only structure accepted by ISO or the federal government.

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.

ACC may be pushing this message because its own preferred rating system—Green Globes, which has stronger ties to mainstream industries and lobbyists—is an ANSI standard.

Postponing LEED v4

You may be wondering if this attack is related to the postponement of the erstwhile LEED 2012, which is now called LEED v4 because it won’t be available until 2013.

Yes and no. While the chemical industry attacks have no direct relationship to the decision to delay rollout, as Nadav Malin reported in EBN earlier this week, there was a more widespread sense—particularly among “core supporters” of LEED—that “the proposed changes in the rating system were too much, too fast, especially in a weak real estate market.”

Avoidance of Chemicals of Concern was among the credits making these groups worry, and a series of gut renovations with each public comment draft may have made the process more vulnerable to industry attacks as the rating system failed to stabilize around a specific, robust approach.

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