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Political junkies have become so accustomed to House Republicans’ venomous hatred of environmental regulation that they could be forgiven for assuming that no environmental legislation would pass the House as long as the GOP controlled it. But on Wednesday, proving that one should never say never, the House approved a measure to improve energy efficiency in both the public and private sectors.

The Energy Efficiency Improvement Act, which overwhelmingly passed by a vote of 375-36, is similar to a bipartisan bill that was reintroduced in the Senate last week. The House bill calls for several steps to reduce electricity waste, including:

  • Create a “Tenant Star” program, modeled on Energy Star, that would establish best practices for efficiency in commercial tenant spaces and set up a voluntary certification system.

  • Require federal agencies to adopt best practices to minimize electricity consumption by information technology, especially data servers.
  • Require federally leased buildings without Energy Star labels to benchmark and disclose energy usage data.

So why did House Republicans do something even the most ardent environmentalists can applaud? According to the bill’s sponsors and environmental activists, there are three reasons: (1) the bill focuses on energy efficiency rather than on environmental protection as such; (2) there is no spending in the bill; and (3) the bill places no requirements on businesses. The last point also explains why business lobbies, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, support the legislation.

“These are mostly very small bore, but important, energy-efficiency measures that are OK with corporate America,” says Sara Chieffo, legislative director at the League of Conservation Voters. “It’s pretty apple pie stuff. One of the few areas of potential bipartisan cooperation is energy efficiency. It’s good for your bottom line.”

Republicans’ enthusiasm for fossil fuel extraction and rejection of federal pollution controls can misconstrued by environmentalists as hatred of the environment and a desire to burn as much oil, gas, and coal as possible. A more accurate understanding is that Republicans are simply indifferent to pollution, especially carbon pollution, and so they are opposed to anything that might force business to pay an extra penny to curb pollution. But while they do not care about the environmental consequences of fuel burning, they do care about resource scarcity. As global demand rises and so do prices, conserving energy is in everyone’s interest.

“I’m finding that when it comes to energy policy, there are a lot of Republicans that have a real interest in [efficiency],” Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), the lead Democratic cosponsor of the bill, tells Grist.

Improving energy efficiency in federal buildings is also consistent with fiscal conservatism, since it saves taxpayers money. And creating a voluntary system for tracking whether an office space uses efficient mechanisms like LED lighting and daylight dimming helps tenants who want to save money, without imposing any regulatory burdens.

Welch says he has been working with Republicans on energy efficiency since Democrats were in the majority. He says House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and his chief of staff were helpful in drafting this bill in a manner that could get Republican support. And Welch and Rep. Corey Gardiner (R-Colo.) have cosponsored another bill that would cut the government’s energy costs on federal buildings by entering into performance-based contracts with engineering firms that could do retrofits.

Welch notes that his Republican cosponsor on the just-passed bill, Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.), is drawn to the issue because he has a background in construction and civil engineering. “The Real Estate Roundtable is big supporter [of this bill], because it will help commercial building owners and tenants save money through efficiency,” says Welch. “And it has the incidental impact of reducing carbon emissions.”

Environmentalists aren’t getting their hopes up about making a lot of progress on climate change just by emphasizing energy efficiency. GOP enthusiasm for efficiency doesn’t even extend to lightbulbs. In 2010, after Republicans won control of the House, conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh were outraged that Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who had sponsored a law allowing only efficient lightbulbs to be sold, was in line to chair the Energy and Commerce Committee. In order to win conservatives’ acceptance, Upton had to repudiate his own law and try to repeal it. That law mandated the kind of bulbs to be used in the private sector, a no-no. Republicans are OK with mandating efficiency in federal buildings, and they are OK with assisting the private sector in voluntary efficiency, but any requirements on businesses upset them. “The Rs have been OK on efficiency if it doesn’t involve government mandates,” says David Goldston, director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council. But the emissions reductions needed to address climate change will have to involve government mandates.

Still, Democrats in Congress are pushing ahead with what they can do right now. Says Welch, “The fact that you’re not going to get everything doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do things you can that are constructive.”