U.S. Green Building Council
Organization

The U.S. Green Building Council is the organization behind the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards to measure the “greenness” of buildings. There are four levels of LEED certification: certified, silver, gold, and platinum. To achieve these standards, buildings accumulate points for various items (i.e. adding a bike rack). At least fourteen federal departments and agencies, 34 states and more than 200 local governments encourage or require LEED certification for both commercial and government funded building projects.

If you reasonably assumed the U.S. Green Building Council was another federal agency tasked with conservation, you’d be wrong. In fact, the USGBC is a private organization that creates and votes on new LEED standards without a public comment period or any semblance of transparency. What’s even more surprising is that despite the added expense of building a LEED-certified building, there’s little consensus as to whether LEED buildings actually use less energy. Yet, the USGBC continues to rake in money from taxpayers and corporations looking to take advantage of hefty tax incentives.

Motivation

Robert K. Watson, a former Senior Scientist and Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), is known as the “father” of LEED. He teamed up with real estate developer David Gottfried to develop the green building rating system. The standards are touted by environmental groups and according to the NRDC, “Achieving LEED certification is the best way for you to demonstrate that your building project is truly ‘green.’” Yet other environmentalists have accused LEED’s green building standards as just another example of “greenwashing.” Buildings can be LEED certified without actually proving their energy efficiency. Ironically, the Sierra Club—one of the biggest proponents of LEED standards—opted to not house its headquarters in a building certified under the USGBC.

Black Eyes

USGBC Allows Companies to Do Little to Gain Massive Tax Breaks

Federal, state, and local governments have passed incentive policies to encourage commercial builders to build energy efficient buildings. These policies include millions of dollars in tax breaks for achieving LEED standards. In Nevada, for instance, new commercial buildings that achieve the LEED Silver level receive a 25 percent reduction of the property tax payable each year for 5-10 years, LEED Gold buildings receive a 25-30 percent reduction of the property tax payable each year for 5-10 years, and LEED Platinum buildings receive a 25-35 percent reduction of the property tax payable each year for 5-10 years.

Several casinos around the country have pursued LEED certification and benefited from massive tax breaks. To take advantage of the over $20 million in tax breaks under Nevada law, new casinos have pursued LEED certification. Casinos can earn lots of easy points from the USGBC for enacting policies already standard among hotels, including room cards that tell guests when towels are replaced. Easy points are also available for adding bike racks and adding preferred parking for fuel-efficient vehicles (even though they don’t actually have to enforce that energy efficient cars park in those spaces). Best of all, the casino didn’t even have to go non-smoking to meet LEED standards—the USGBC granted an exemption for the casino floor itself.

Casinos are far from the only commercial development earning huge property tax breaks by achieving the easiest (and cheapest) points available from the USGBC. USA TODAY reviewed documents of 7,100 LEED-certified commercial buildings and found that the easiest and cheapest points available were targeted by building designers. These points include trying to create pleasant and healthful office spaces, using common building materials, providing preferred parking for fuel-efficient cars, bike racks and showers, and posting educational displays about the building.

Commercial developers aren’t the only ones taking the easy route to LEED certification and tax breaks. Residential builders have found easy ways to game the system and achieve LEED certification without adding huge costs to their budgets. In fact, one website has identified 22 “shortcuts” to earning 70 points for LEED certification. These tips include: leaving out a fireplace (2 points), passing the LEED AP home designation test (1 point), refrain from poisoning bugs (2 points), installing a bench for shoe storage (1 point), and airing out the house for 48 hours before occupancy (1 point).

LEED Certifies Based on Projected, Not Actual, Energy Savings

You’d probably assume that in order to potentially save millions in taxes, your building would actually have to prove that it’s more energy- and water-efficient than regular buildings. However, LEED-certified buildings only have to meet a certain energy-efficient standard in theory and based on proposed—but not necessarily adhered to—practices. If after the building is occupied, it grossly exceeds its projected energy use, it will still maintain its LEED certified status.

Even the USGBC itself says that: “Buildings have a poor track record for performing as predicted during design.”  It also notes that, “Current information indicates that most buildings do not perform as well as design metrics indicate. As a result, building owners might not obtain the benefits promised.”

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has its own energy-certification seal- the Energy Star label. To earn the EPA’s seal, a building must prove based on a year’s worth of utility bills that it is energy efficient. Not surprisingly, some buildings certified as LEED green buildings fail to receive the EPA’s Energy Star seal. For instance, Youngstown, Ohio’s Federal Building has LEED certification, but failed to achieve Energy Star status based on its actual energy usage because its cooling system was a “major gas guzzler.”

As the New York Times noted, a USGBC study of 121 new buildings certified through LEED as of 2006, 53 percent did not qualify for the EPA’s Energy Star label. A 2009 study of LEED buildings by Oberlin College found that there is “no evidence that LEED-certification has collectively lowered either site or source energy for office buildings.”

Though technically a third party can now challenge a building’s LEED certification, the USGBC has yet to revoke any building’s LEED status. So if building owners aren’t necessarily achieving projected energy savings, why are we pouring millions of dollars into tax incentives for LEED-certified buildings?

LEED Lacks Scientific Proof of Environmental Benefit

It seems the USGBC has a good reason for neglecting public input on its standards—scientists don’t agree that LEED buildings are actually more energy efficient than traditional buildings.

In testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, Dr. John H. Scofield of Oberlin College stated that “There then appears to be no scientific basis for institutions such as colleges, universities, or the Federal Government to require LEED certification as a GHG or energy reduction strategy for its buildings.

He further commented that: “The Federal government would not require or fund wide-spread use of a drug without scientific research that demonstrates its efficacy. Data from a few, hand-selected cases would not suffice. The standards are clear. Similarly the Federal government should not require or spend my tax dollars on green building certification absent scientific proof that these measures have achieved significant reduction in primary energy consumption.”

Henry Gifford, author of “A better way to rate green buildings,” criticizes LEED, saying “Going to so much trouble and expense to end up with buildings that use more energy than comparable buildings is not only a tragedy, it is also a fraud perpetuated on US  consumers trying their best to achieve true environmental friendliness.”

The biggest problem with the LEED standards is that buildings can earn arbitrary points for things that do nothing to improve the energy efficiency or reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of buildings. Even LEED developer and former NRDC director Rob Watson says, “We threw a few gimmes in there so people could get into the low 20s.”

The points aren’t weighted so builders could earn a point for adding a bike rack (even if the building isn’t located near bike friendly streets) or redeveloping a brownfield. They can earn two points for building only the minimum required number of parking spaces (which will just encourage to park illegally in areas around the building) or two points for using “green power”, 50 percent renewable energy.

USGBC Collects Huge Amounts of Revenue from Certification Fees

While it may not be that expensive to earn many of the easy points available to earn LEED certification, the certification process itself is incredibly expensive. The General Services Administration (GSA) which oversees federal government building construction estimates that soft costs, such as fees to the USGBC and to LEED consultants, add about $150,000 to the price of a new federal building.

Ohio mandates that new schools meet LEED standards, which has added $131 million in construction costs since 2007. In New Mexico, LEED certification for new schools has added between $2,350 and $7,950 in certification costs alone—that doesn’t including additional material or design needed to meet the state’s LEED mandate.

For all this added taxpayer cost, the USGBC is raking in millions in fees. In 2012 alone, the USGBC collected $28 million in certification fees and $6 million in registration fees from taxpayers, corporations, and homeowners. It earned another $14 million in membership dues—individuals and companies have to become dues-paying members of the USGBC if they want to vote on LEED standards or view information materials about the LEED program. Overall, USGBC earned over $76 million in 2012 while its expenses totaled a mere $49 million.

Future of LEED

Despite the fact that many states encourage or require the use of LEED standards in new public building construction, a growing number of states are actually making the move to ban the use of LEED standards. Alabama, Georgia, Maine, and Mississippi now ban the use of any green building standards that prefers one wood certification program over the others. Legislation to enact similar bans has cropped up in a dozen other states.

For years, the USGBC had the monopoly on green building certification programs, but it is now facing new competition from the Green Building Initiative, a nonprofit that has developed its own green building rating system, Green Globes. In October 2013, the GSA announced that new buildings could either be certified under Green Globes or LEED. The Green Globes standard does not limit builders to specific sustainable timber certification programs.