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The Emphasis should be on Sustainability in Green Building

10/28/2016 | Articles & Alerts

Green building remains the focus of many both within and outside the construction and real estate world. This is a good thing, as our environment is worth protecting. However, too many working in this area emphasize the wrong focal point. Green building only works as a concept if it is sustainable.

I recently wrote on this issue for my firm’s construction blog – – and pointed out a specific example worth repeating here. It demonstrates the important point that environmental laws can actually hurt the construction and real estate market, and the economy and environment at large, if they are not carefully considered and implemented. When that happens, people are negatively impacted, the laws lose support both in the short and long term, and rules are less likely to be put in place.

President Obama announced his plan to address what he labels as climate issues in June 2013. Thereafter, the EPA published a number of new regulations that relate to carbon emissions in furtherance of changes to the Clean Air Act. While the intent is good, some of these new regulations may significantly impact an important industry to the Mid-Atlantic region: coal and Marcellus Shale development. This, in turn, will directly affect the construction industry responsible for building the infrastructure that goes along with it.

The objective of the new EPA rules is to reduce greenhouse gases. The federal government attributes 1/3 of all greenhouse gas emissions domestically to power plants, so the EPA plans to require partial carbon capture and sequestration at all power plants in the US. Many experts believe it will be cost prohibitive to retrofit old power plants or build new ones that will meet these requirements. This is particularly the case with coal fired plants, but natural gas will also struggle to meet an emission limit of 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per mega-watt hour.

So what happens when the owners of the power plants determine they can’t afford to make the changes the EPA demands? Maybe they operate anyway and elect to pay a fine because it’s cheaper. A legal challenge could be mounted at great cost. Perhaps they shut down and people lose the power that plant generates. Regardless of the outcome, the construction market loses jobs and the economy at large is hurt for fewer jobs and a lack of necessary power needed to keep industry running.

No one favors destroying the environment. The real debate centers on sustainability. New environmental and green building laws should be sustainable within the economy and sustain the environment. Without both components, this laudable goal dies a slow death for lack of support.

The aforementioned EPA regulations seem to take little account of situational economics. Legal challenges are expected to the new regulations from several quarters. Among those making the most noise are members of Congress from coal producing states like Kentucky. This will make it harder and less likely for these rules to be put into place and have the desired effect.

Green building needs to be smart building.