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EDITORIAL: The dark side of green

Eco-building codes make liberal cash cows more sustainable

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Builders across America are constructing and renovating everything from college football stadiums and Broadway theaters to libraries and elementary schools with an eye toward making environmentalists green with envy. They'll do whatever it takes to persuade the United States Green Building Council to give them an eco-certification award known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED.

It's a stamp of approval that can pay off big in tax incentives, without actually doing much for the environment. There's at least the appearance of self-dealing at the outfit that comes up with these standards. Many of the Green Building Council's 13,000 members happen to be architects, builders or building suppliers who provide products and services needed to achieve certification. The organization also charges up to $35,000 for each new building it certifies, according to the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

It's no wonder the council has worked to cement its monopoly on "green" building standards and to persuade federal, state and local governments to impose them on new buildings. The General Services Administration, which acts as the landlord for Uncle Sam, demands LEED Gold standards for all new federal buildings. Thirty-five states and more than 170 cities, including Washington, Los Angeles and Dallas, either require certification or give builders tax incentives for adhering to LEED specifications.

The green imprimatur comes at a high cost to taxpayers. Besides the hefty certification fees, The New York Times estimated that meeting LEED requirements adds as much as 20 percent to construction costs.

All that extra cash doesn't do anything to make the air cleaner. The Green Building Council, for example, bestowed a rare and highly coveted LEED Platinum status on the 55-story Bank of America Tower in New York when it opened in 2010. Lauded as the most "environmentally responsible" office building in the world because of its certification, the billion-dollar skyscraper actually generates more "greenhouse" gases (for those who care about such things) and sucks more energy from the power grid than any other office tower its size in Manhattan, according to a New Republic investigation released in July.

A study of 11 LEED-certified buildings belonging to the Navy revealed that four of the buildings used more energy than non-LEED counterparts, and three were identical to buildings without certification. The credits needed to obtain certifications frequently have nothing to do with energy efficiency. USA Today reported that buildings could get a credit simply for having a LEED expert on its design team. Hotels racked up credits for placing cards in rooms asking guests to reuse towels, and schools received credits for teaching about "green" construction in the classroom. It's all image without substance.

Fortunately, some state governments are wising up. Recognizing the dodgy financial ties and measly environmental benefits associated with LEED certifications, some politicians are taking a step back. North Carolina enacted a law in July prohibiting any standards, such as LEED, that discriminate against in-state building material. The governors of Georgia and Maine have issued executive orders distancing their states from the Green Building Council.

Congress must also push back against the administration's effort to require adherence to dubious and costly standards that are more about greenbacks for cronies than creating a better place to live.

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