This house is extremely efficient.

Wouldn’t it be cool if we passed a rule mandating that all new federal buildings had to be carbon-neutral by 2030? The feds buy and build a lot of real estate. An effort to wring fossil-fuel energy out of those buildings — by increasing their efficiency and supplying them with renewables — would seriously bolster domestic markets for efficiency and distributed energy. Beyond that, it would serve as a proving ground and an example for the communities where those buildings are located. It would be galvanizing.

“But,” you’re protesting, “we would never do something so radical. Germany might. Denmark, maybe. Not us.”

Hark! I say to you. Hark to this sh*t: We do have such a rule! It was passed by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush! It’s on the books, the law of the land. Specifically, it is Section 433 of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. It says that new federal buildings, or major renovations ($2.5 million or more) of federal buildings, must reduce their consumption of fossil-fuel energy (relative to a similar building in 2003) 55 percent by 2010, 80 percent by 2020, and 100 percent by 2030. (It hasn’t been funded yet, so that 2010 target is, er, no longer operational.)

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It’s an audacious goal, basically Architecture 2030’s “2030 Challenge” put into law.

Architecture 2030 challenge

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“Holy crap,” you’re saying, “if we have a law that awesome, surely come powerful constituency must be trying to screw it up!”

Right you are. On April 12, representatives from the American Gas Association (AGA) and the Federal Performance Contracting Coalition (FPCC) met at the White House with administration officials from DOE, CEQ, and OMB. At that meeting they offered this issue brief [PDF], which called on Congress to “substantially modify or eliminate EISA section 433.” You can bet that issue brief hit all the relevant congressional offices as well.

Less than a month later, Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-La.) of the House Appropriations Committee offered an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2013 Energy and Water Appropriations Bill that would “prohibit funding” to implement Section 433.

What is motivating this stealth attack on one of the few genuinely ambitious energy laws in the U.S.?

For the AGA, it’s pretty simple: no fossil fuel means no natural gas. They don’t even make any bones about it. This is what it says in the brief:

The mandate runs counter to the Presidential position on natural gas as part of an “all of the above” energy strategy: President Obama has recently stressed the need for development of “every available source” of American energy in the most recent state of the union address. This mandate would halt the pursuit of increased use of natural gas to support the national priorities of helping to improve our economy, reduce environmental impacts and secure our nation’s energy future.

First off, the mandate would “halt the pursuit of increased use of natural gas”? Seriously? The feds own about 1 percent of the nation’s building stock. I’m pretty sure the booming natural gas industry will survive.

Second, this makes it pretty obvious that the natural gas industry does not see itself as a “bridge” to a clean energy future, as so many others do (or claim to). The AGA doesn’t think we should stop burning fossil fuels, even if that’s an option! Shockingly, it is in favor of the federal government using a lot of natural gas. Bridge, schmidge.

But why is the FPCC against this? As Martin Pederson says:

FPCC members include: Ameresco, Chevron, Constellation Energy Services, FPL Energy Services, Honeywell, Johnson Controls, Lockheed Martin, Noresco, Pepco Energy Services, Schneider-Electric, Siemens Government Services, Inc., and Trane/Ingersoll Rand. There’s no surprise in seeing the likes of Chevron here (they are, after all, in the business of selling fossil fuels), but there are a couple of surprises. Schneider-Electric has actually signed onto the 2030 Challenge. Johnson Controls has a Zero Energy Buildings Whitepaper featured on their website. Many of the other companies are prominent in the field of energy efficiency.

What gives?

Good question.

The rest of the issue brief mostly consists of whining that the targets can’t be met. It cites a few big power-plant projects and one 11-story building renovation it claims the rule will prevent, but as Ed Mazria of Architecture 2030 notes, there’s a way to get a waiver under Section 433 if the “requirement would be technically impracticable.”

The allegedly imperiled projects are a red herring anyway. The vast majority of federal buildings are one- or two-story housing structures. The vast majority (95.7 percent) of the non-residential buildings it owns are three stories and under. As Mazria says, “there are numerous low-cost solutions for dramatically reducing energy consumption in single story and low-rise buildings: daylighting and ventilation strategies, natural heating and cooling systems, and high-performance products, fixtures, and equipment, to name just a few.”

And energy use in these buildings doesn’t have to be eliminated — the buildings do not have to be “net zero energy” like, say, passivhaus standards would have it. They just have to be carbon-neutral. They can provide their own energy with on-site renewables (or combined heat and power, as long as it uses biomass instead of natural gas). And if they can’t do that, they can buy clean energy from utilities. (Fifty percent of electricity consumers now have that option; presumably the number will be far greater by 2030.) Presumably over the coming 18 years, these options will expand and evolve.

There’s no denying that Section 433 represents a stretch goal. Striving to reach that goal would involve lots of groping about and most likely some failures. But much would be discovered and achieved. Much momentum would be built. This is exactly the kind of thing we need to be doing. We need more stretch goals on the books if we’re ever going to get on the path to serious climate solutions.

The few good laws we do have deserve better than to be quietly assassinated through backroom lobbying and obscure amendments.