Green Government

From clean-fuel fleets to eco-friendly offices, agencies face myriad challenges in their newest mission-saving the environment.

Green is indeed the new black, as senior correspondent Katherine McIntire Peters notes in this month's special issue on green government.

From the macro (climate change and oil prices) to the micro (ceiling fans and solar panels), energy efficiency is in vogue. Federal agencies, however, didn't just stumble onto the trend at the height of its popularity. They've promoted environmentally friendly and cost-efficient energy initiatives for more than a decade; in some instances the government is actually ahead of the curve.

But Uncle Sam hasn't received much credit from the 2008 presumptive presidential nominees for previous forays into green territory. Both candidates have vowed to make the federal government a green leader. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona wants government buildings to use less electricity and a federal fleet of fuel- efficient cars. Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois wants to create a federal investment program that would teach manufacturers how to make green products. He also would mandate that 25 percent of U.S. electricity be drawn from alternative energy sources, including solar, wind and geothermal power.

These and other goals are similar to policies already under way at many agencies. Our package of stories looks at several, ranging from the integral role of the General Services Administration in reducing energy use and water consumption in federal buildings-a daunting task considering the agency owns or leases more than 352 million square feet of office space in more than 8,600 facilities nationwide-to an innovative partnership between the Air Force and industry to save an estimated $1 million annually in electricity costs at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. On the procurement front, agencies already contract with companies to buy green goods and services-everything from bed linens to grease removers.

Being green hasn't been easy for a government that spends $400 billion annually on goods and services and is the nation's largest consumer of energy. Managers must navigate a complex web of executive orders, regulations and laws, each one directing them to achieve energy goals that are often too ambitious for agencies' shrinking budgets and workforces. Complicated legal restrictions govern contracts with public utilities, and politics often trumps the execution of well-crafted and cost-effective federal programs. Meanwhile, tracking contract dollars and data-green or otherwise-in a central database might sound simple, but for a bureaucracy as vast as the U.S. government, it's an undertaking of colossal proportions.

Agencies are tasked with finding alternative sources of energy while saving money, protecting the environment and its citizens, and working with Congress. It's a mission that's practically set up for failure. But success is usually a mixed bag, particularly in public policy. Perhaps it's more useful to take some risks to find the right fit instead of cautiously aiming for perfection.

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