Federal Buildings Are Getting Greener, But Agency Missions Can Get in the Way

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., promised to work with colleagues to ensure agencies have the tools they need to get even more energy efficient. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., promised to work with colleagues to ensure agencies have the tools they need to get even more energy efficient. Jacquelyn Martin/AP file photo

As the nation’s largest energy consumer, the federal government is making progress toward greener building management, but agencies’ day-to-day work demands sometimes take priority over improvements to environmental protections, a watchdog found.

In a review of major agency practices representing a governmentwide portfolio of 275,000 buildings, the Government Accountability Office in a report released Thursday found some success in the use of third-party certification authorities to gauge how well building designs conserve energy and water use.

A March executive order from President Obama upped requirements on agencies for cutting greenhouse gas emissions while extending compliance time frames for existing buildings. Training and guidance on implementation has been circulating from the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the Energy Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the General Services Administration and the Office of Management and Budget.

GAO’s review of the those agencies plus building management at the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments found that progress is helped by nonprofit authorities such as the U.S. Green Building Council and the Green Building Initiative’s certifications. GAO also cited the EPA’s Energy Star Portfolio Manager as a useful Web-based tool to help agencies measure energy and water use.

GAO’s interviews showed that “certification provides a well-established framework for documenting and ensuring compliance; serves as a tool to communicate with contractors and the public; and reduces the need for additional staff to verify that a building meets requirements.” None of the agencies require third-party certification for existing buildings, auditors said, but three have developed their own systems for assessing the implementation of key requirements. EPA and VA officials require that specific new projects be certified, but may reevaluate this approach after the coming new building requirements are issued.

Obstacles to greening include volume of buildings, competing mission priorities and demanding criteria, GAO found. Pentagon officials, for example, said that the sheer number of buildings in their inventory proves challenging. Several agencies noted that their “building inventories include certain building types -- such as laboratories, hospitals and industrial buildings -- for which some requirements are difficult to implement.”

VA cited the demands of new safety requirements and extended hours to address patient backlogs as a challenge to implementing energy and water conservation requirements. Also, some agency officials said that the criteria for evaluating compliance with the requirements “can be a disincentive to implementing some requirements because no credit is received unless all of the requirements are implemented.”

CEQ officials said they are aware of possible disincentives. GAO made no recommendations.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, welcomed the report. “By making the buildings we own more sustainable and energy-efficient, we can help shrink our carbon footprint, help ease the enormous budgetary pressures facing our federal government and save taxpayers billions of dollars – something I like to call a win-win-win,” he said in a Friday statement. “Earlier this year, the administration outlined an ambitious commitment to improve energy efficiency, declaring to the nation and the world that the United States is serious about curbing harmful emissions and its federal government is ready to lead by example.”

Carper promised to work with colleagues “to ensure that federal agencies have the tools and resources they need to implement this important order and become more sustainable and energy-efficient.”

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