During the last presidential campaign, lobbyists took a lot of heat from candidates and the media. The word “lobbyist” conjured images of sneaky special interests cozying up to Washington, D.C., fat cats to push their agendas. In fact, one of the first acts of the new Obama administration was aimed at limiting the reach of lobbyists in Washington.
Although there likely are some lobbyists worthy of ire, not all are pushing slanted agendas and creating havoc. While some lobbies represent manufacturers or specific economic interests, others, such as the Atlanta-based American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers Inc., represent societal causes. ASHRAE’s members are interested in the promise of high-performance buildings, and the organization’s presence in Washington is designed to educate decision makers about the attributes and benefits of efficient buildings.
Recently, eco-structure had a chance to chat with Doug Read, program director for governmental affairs with ASHRAE and the group’s lobbyist in Washington. He shared his thoughts about the new administration and what ASHRAE is doing to help facilitate a new era of better- performing buildings.
What led ASHRAE to have a presence in Washington?
DR: When I came on board with ASHRAE three years ago, it was clear the group's members wanted more visibility. ASHRAE's standards, such as 90.1 ["Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings"], are referenced in legislation, and ASHRAE had been working at the program level with the [Washington-based]
U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Our members wanted a better relationship with those organizations. The building industry is very fragmented, particularly with regard to public policy, so we started a few initiatives three years ago. One was the Monthly High Performance Building and Energy Efficiency Round Table, which is a networking group. We have upwards of 70 organizations on our roster. It’s an opportunity to share information that perhaps we wouldn’t get to otherwise. For example, I might talk to a staff member on the House Energy Committee about a piece of legislation it is getting ready to introduce.
As we started meeting on a regular basis, we found there was so much synergy with that collective involvement, we decided to elevate understanding about high-performance buildings on Capitol Hill. ASHRAE took the lead on developing a new caucus. Caucuses typically require bipartisan co-chairs; the co-chairs of our caucus, the High Performance Building Congressional Caucus Coalition, are Rep. Russ Carnahan [D-Mo.] and Rep. Judy Biggert [R-Ill.]. The caucus’ Web site, www.hpbccc.org, lists the current members of Congress that have signed on, as well as the organizational members of the coalition.
What are the goals of the High Performance Building Congressional Caucus Coalition?
The coalition is tied to the High Performance Building Council, which is an organization mandated by Congress in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to collect data about the building standards that exist in the marketplace and develop a report. The council is the technical arm and our caucus is the political arm of this effort.
It essentially is an opportunity for Congress to learn about high-performance buildings. We determined very early on that we would use the legislative definition of high-performance buildings to include all attributes referenced in the [Washington-based] National Institute of Building Sciences’ Whole Building Design Guide. The guide identifies eight or nine performance attributes, which include accessibility, security, safety, energy and energy efficiency.
Since we established the caucus about a year and a half ago, we’ve had about eight Congressional briefings focus on topics, like green schools, high-performance buildings after natural disasters and so on. We’re doing one on federal buildings, which is a follow-up to a workshop we had last June. They’re essentially educational briefings for Capitol Hill staff to learn more about buildings and what constitutes a high-performance building. We did a high-performance buildings 101 in January because we had a new Congress and a lot of new staffers. We wanted to set the stage to make sure everyone had a basic understanding of what constitutes high-performance buildings.
If you go to Capitol Hill at any given time, most hill staffers are very young—25 years old. They often don’t have the breadth of technical experience or understanding of issues that are important, particularly when their bosses are making policy decisions about which way to vote on a piece of legislation. It’s the staffers’ job to go out to the experts and gather information, so they can make recommendations to their bosses about how to vote. Lobbyists are the ones who provide that information.
Now, obviously, some lobbyists are going to be slanted. No one is suggesting the economic impact of a decision shouldn’t be considered, but when you’re talking about things like climate change, somebody is going to get hurt. Someone is going to have to pay the price for the betterment of the whole; that’s not our axe to grind. ASHRAE is a bunch of engineers who strive to provide the best information to Congress. That’s our role.
Do you feel that lobbyists got a bad shake in the last election?
Sometimes all lobbyists get lumped together. However, if you look at organizations, like the [Washington-based] American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and some of the energy-advocacy groups, like the [Washington-based] American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, they’re built around what’s best for society and not what is going to economically impact a particular group or industry.
There are ethics rules and new rules about lobbying individuals who have worked within the administration or limits in terms of who can be lobbied or work as paid lobbyists. By and large, I think we’re pretty comfortable with how we interact with Capitol Hill and how it interacts with us.
Washington is made up of idea people. Several years ago, I did a study to determine how many members of Congress were engineers or scientists or came from technical backgrounds.
There actually are a dozen or so—one was a physicist, one was an engineering professor. There are some that do get it, but by and large these are people who have made a career out of politics.
Did ASHRAE contribute to the discussion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009?
We were interacting with Capitol Hill staff as the process proceeded. A lot of people and organizations within the building community played a significant role to make sure the right things ended up in the legislation. We had a meeting with NIBS that was a little late in terms of what we wanted to see in the stimulus, but we ended up recommending what we’d like to see in terms of oversight—how this money is going to be spent and what’s the most effective way to ensure this money is being spent properly relative to buildings and the greening of buildings. We need to make sure federal buildings are retrofitted or built to a certain standard and ensure this really is happening.
We submitted a report about high-performance buildings to Congress and DOE in June of last year. Almost every one of the recommendations listed in the report had the word “metrics” in it. Performance metrics are a big issue. You can develop all the standards in the world, but if you don’t enforce them through codes or measure how well these buildings are performing, you’ll never know what you’re going to end up with. Standards are one thing, but the critical piece is the enforcement and metrics.
In the stimulus act, there are several items that respond to this, such as training and improved code enforcement, as well as adoption of certain standards that ultimately will require oversight and enforcement at the state level. The bottom line is that many of our recommendations aren’t yet being specifically addressed in legislation. It’s like anything, you send a report to Congress and it’s about finding who has the jurisdictional responsibility to push these things forward. I don’t think we have an answer to that yet.
Are you seeing a change in mindset with the new administration in Washington?
The Obama administration is much more transparent than the Bush White House was, primarily in the area of science and technology. Obama’s White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has been far more open to listening to the scientific and engineering community and its position on energy efficiency. In addition, my dealings with regulatory agencies, such as DOE, have been much more candid during these past few months compared to the way they were during the Bush administration.
What challenges do you see going forward?
Sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for. There are some organizations that push for more stringent and faster-moving targets. We’re a standards body and Standard 90.1 was developed through a consensus process under ANSI. That means it’s transparent and we have diverse representation covering a broad range of stakeholders. You can’t dictate to our standards committee, for instance, that they have to hit a certain target.
A few years ago, ASHRAE’s former president, Terry Townsend, decided he would like our 90.1 Committee to improve the energy efficiency of that standard by 30 percent by 2010. All of a sudden, you have organizations who are trying to get legislation in place to require us to hit that. If we don’t, DOE would basically be assigned the task of developing its own standards, which doesn’t work. DOE would need private-sector expertise to adequately develop model codes. Besides not having the expertise in-house, the agency isn't prepared to develop standards in a timely fashion. In fact, it often has taken years for DOE to adopt each new addition of Standard 90.1.
Nobody is saying that ASHRAE is not working very diligently, given all the circumstances we’re experiencing in our world, to move these standards toward energy efficiency. We’re trying to capture as many opportunities as we can, but you can’t force the 90.1 Committee to hit those targets. We only can recommend they do.
The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers Inc., Atlanta, has a number of groups and initiatives working with lawmakers in Washington, D.C. The High Performance Building Council works with the U.S. Department of Energy, Washington, and standards-writing organizations to assess voluntary consensus standards and rating systems to provide for high-performance buildings. To learn more, visit www.wbdg.org/hpbc.
The High Performance Buildings Caucus Coalition was formed to create awareness and inform policymakers about the impact buildings have on our health, safety and welfare, as well as the opportunities to design, construct and operate high-performance buildings. More information is available at www.hpbccc.org.
The High Performance Commercial Green Building Partnership brings together organizations from all facets of the building community to further the development of high-performance commercial buildings. Eco-structure is a member of this partnership. To learn more, visit www.hpcgbp.org/index.htm.