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The Winds of Change?

With Federal Legislative action uncertain, States have increasingly stepped up to fill the gap.

11/2006

By Bruce Buckley

Throughout the past year, the winds of change have wafted through the halls of Congress, powering increased debate about green building and alternative energy. However, at press time, as Congress recesses for the election season, it seems that all of the talk may have amounted to little more than hot air.

Photo Courtesy jim frazier
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With their constituents feeling pain at the pump from gasoline price hikes, renewable and clean energy was a hot topic among legislators on Capitol Hill. Energy efficiency measures and green building issues also received the backing of many congressmen.

Carol Werner, executive director of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, says she sees growing interest in green issues in Congress. Werner points to 29 pieces of pending legislation introduced during this session that address energy efficiency and environmental quality in buildings. “A growing number of constituencies are becoming engaged, which is definitely making a difference on Capitol Hill,” she says. “We’re seeing an increased number of bills being introduced and a greater frequency that these issues are being raised by policy makers.”

Unfortunately, those bills have so far not become law. And, with Congress focused on wrapping up budgetary issues in November, observers say it is unlikely that any green legislation will pass before the session ends.

The Senate moved on the High Performance Green Buildings Act of 2006 in September, approving a bill to authorize $25 million. It included the establishment of a U.S. General Services Administration office of high-performance green buildings, and funds to develop design standards for energy efficiency, indoor air quality, and low emitting materials for schools. However, there was no corresponding action in the House on the bill, and a version is not likely to pass before the close of business in November, according to observers.

When the new Congress convenes in January, any such proposed bills will have to be reintroduced. But that doesn’t mean the fight is lost, say green building proponents. “The problems won’t go away,” says Tom Wolfe, senior director of federal affairs at the American Institute of Architects. “There is a broader-based consensus across the country that climate change is a long-term problem and we haven’t really begun to address it. We’re building an understanding among those on [Capitol Hill] that it can be addressed in the built environment.”

One issue that remains high on Congress’ priority list is finalizing the proposed 2007 federal budget. Following President Bush’s declaration during his 2006 State of the Union Address that “America is addicted to oil,” the U.S. Department of Energy released a budget that gave a healthy jolt of support for renewable and clean energy programs. Proposed funding for biomass, solar, hydrogen and wind jumped $169 million from the 2006 budget. Solar was a clear winner, up $65 million from the previous year, to $148.4 million. Nearly $149.7 million was proposed for biomass and biorefinery systems research and development, an increase of 65 percent over 2006 funding.

However, the boost to renewable energy funds came at the expense of energy efficiency programs. The proposed 2007 budget for DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy remained relatively flat, inching from $1.174 billion in 2006 to $1.176 billion. With renewables finding favor, programs such as weatherization grants, which dropped $78 million from 2006, took a hit.

With federal legislative action uncertain, states have increasingly stepped up to fill the gap. Scott Sklar, president of The Stella Group, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, notes that issues such as greenhouse gas emissions are receiving attention from republican governors in states like California, New York, Nevada and Massachusetts. In September, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation that sets aggressive limits for carbon dioxide emissions.

Sklar says that grass roots support from prominent governors will keep these issues alive as Congress enters its new session in 2007, even if Republicans hold on to their majority. “These republican governors, who are stars of their party, have been unabashed champions of these issues and that has caused a double take in Washington,” he says. “The governments that are closest to the people are moving in this direction and things [in Congress] will start to go our way eventually.”

From his base in Washington, D.C., freelance writer Bruce Buckley regularly covers design and construction industry-related legislative developments for several publications, including McGraw-Hill’s Engineering News-Record.

This article appeared in the November 2006 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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