May 7, 2013: I just learned of House Bill 628 (Protect/Promote N.C. Lumber) today and set out to understand why the N.C. General Assembly would want to stop state construction projects from trying to meet energy efficiency and environment sustainability standards. The short answer may be a perfect symbol of the current environmental moment — an industry has asked the state legislature to do something to influence a private nonprofit organization’s voluntary environmental sustainability standards because those standards set a higher bar than the industry wants to meet to get credit for being “green”.
First, House Bill 628 really protects and promotes the particular type of “green” certification for wood products supported by the N.C. Forestry Association. Certification of products and buildings as energy efficient and environmentally sustainable has become both an environmental movement and a marketing tool. “Green” labels on consumer products appeal to environmentally conscious consumers. A green building certification appeals to those same consumers and to large institutions (public and private) interested in environmental protection or cost savings from energy and water efficiency. That consumer appeal gives a “green” label economic power and a war is currently raging over the kind of forestry practices that should get credit toward green product labels and green building certification.
House Bill 628 wades into the green building controversy. The U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit organization, has developed the most widely known and accepted standards for environmentally sustainable and energy efficient construction. The Green Building Council’s program gives credit toward LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building certification for use of wood products that meet standards set by the Forest Stewardship Council. You can find more information on LEED certification standards here.
The American Forest and Paper Association created its own set of sustainable forestry standards in the 1990s. The Forest and Paper Association’s Sustainable Forests Initiative has since separated from the industry organization and operates as an independent nonprofit that maintains voluntary standards for sustainable forestry practices and certifies forestry operations meeting those standards. The forest products industry has pushed the U.S. Green Building Council to give credit toward LEED certification for use of wood from a forestry operation certified by the Sustainable Forests Initiative, but the Green Building Council has resisted the change.
One afternoon has not been enough to fully understand the differences between certification under the Sustainable Forests Initiative versus the Forest Stewardship Council, so I am not going to try to resolve the controversy over their relative merits. For purposes of understanding the political fight, conservation organizations believe the Forest Stewardship Council standards used for LEED certification do a better job of protecting endangered species and old growth forests and are less likely to result in clear-cutting. The forest products industry prefers the Sustainable Forests Initiative standards as less costly and sustainable enough.
What does House Bill 628 do?
● It prevents any future state construction projects from seeking LEED Certification. (The bill only allows state projects to seek green building certification from a program that gives credit under the Sustainable Forests Initiative and uses standards approved by the American National Standards Institute. The LEED program does not meet either of those requirements.) The move away from LEED certification for state buildings will likely set back efforts to push state construction projects to greater energy and water efficiency and a smaller environmental footprint.
● Ironically, the bill may hurt other North Carolina industries that benefit from LEED standards encouraging use of local materials. A representative from Nucor Steel (a North Carolina-based company that produces steel from recycled materials) spoke against the bill in the House Agriculture Committee meeting today and noted the value of LEED standards as an incentive to use of domestic steel in construction.
Is there an offsetting benefit to the North Carolina lumber industry? That is not clear. Nothing the N.C. General Assembly does can compel the U.S. Green Building Council to change LEED standards; it is entirely possible that House Bill 628 will order the state to abandon LEED certification for state construction projects without achieving any change in LEED standards for wood products. It also isn’t clear that the LEED standard for wood represents a real barrier to use of North Carolina lumber. The LEED standard for wood represents a very small part of the LEED green building certification. A commercial building must meet basic LEED requirements and earn a minimum of 40 points on a 110-point rating system scale for LEED certification. Meeting the wood standard just provides one point. The wood standard itself is modest — a builder can earn that one point by using only 50% (based on cost) of wood-based materials and products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council for permanent building components( such as framing and floors); temporary construction materials do not count against the percentage.
It is also difficult to argue that the LEED standards disadvantage N.C. products, when each N.C. forestry operation can choose to meet the voluntary Forest Stewardship Council certification standards that receive credit toward LEED certification. The real issue is that N.C. wood producers want the benefits of a “green” product label — but also want to set the standards for being “green”.