Industry defeated the army of Leslie Knopes

Good morning from windy, cold Astoria, Queens. Thanks to all of you who remained subscribers even after I popped back up in to your inbox following a nearly two-year hiatus.

I’m writing to give you an update on the story I sent you last week.

You may recall the basics. The International Code Council, the private consortium that drafts model building codes for much of the United States and parts of the Caribbean and Latin America, was considering changing its process for writing energy-efficiency codes. The change, advocated by industry groups like the National Association of Home Builders and the American Gas Association, called for eliminating local governments’ right to vote on energy codes.

The proposal came after a record number of government officials cast ballots in late 2019 for the codes set to come into effect this year. Following two rounds of codes that made only paltry 1% energy efficiency increases, local governments rallied to support a slate of new measures that would ramp up efficiency by as much as 14% and require new buildings to include the circuitry to hook up electric appliances, heaters, and vehicle chargers. I called them the army of Leslie Knopes (I know, kinda cheesy, but when you’re writing about something as dry as building codes, you take whatever pop-culture connections you can get.)

It was a divisive proposal. Industry supported it. The ICC, which has long been criticized for its close ties to industry, said it was necessary. But local governments, environmentalists, architects, and federal officials vehemently opposed it. After my last story published, I got my hands on a letter the Biden administration sent to the ICC, asking the nonprofit’s leadership to hold off on the change. On Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) echoed that demand in a letter of their own.

On Thursday, the proposal passed anyway.

By a vote of 16-2, the ICC’s executive board decided to permanently end voting by government officials, opting instead for a more bureaucratic “standards” process. The ICC said it would create a committee that would give government officials “the strongest voice.” It promised “one-third of the seats” on that committee to “government regulators.” But it’s unclear who would occupy the other two thirds. 

I asked Dominic Sims, the ICC’s chief executive, on Thursday afternoon. He didn’t give a clear answer: “My sense is the committee will be comprised of people who have an interest in energy efficiency and building science”

Contrary to what his critics thought, he said, the new process would actually help decarbonize buildings — which use roughly 40% of all energy in the U.S. and produce a proportional share of greenhouse gas pollution — even faster.

“I will say this: the impetus and the discussion around this issue is not just about the last 12 months,” he told me. “Each code cycle, it’s been different. There’s been winners and there’s been losers. That sort of unevenness has not produced quick enough results, or else we’d be at net zero already.” 

It was clear who won and lost this round.

Industry groups praised the result. The American Gas Association said it “supports the new framework released today by the International Code Council and believes that the new standards process is inclusive of the stakeholders needed to help ensure reasonable, viable efficiency improvements for the built environment.” The National Association of Home Builders called the new process “an important change that we expect to result in a model energy code that meets the needs of consumers, builders, building officials and energy efficiency advocates.”

The American Institute of Architects, on the other hand, called the decision “a step backwards for climate action” that “will no doubt erode progress towards the modern codes that are desperately needed to heal our planet.”

Amy Turner, a senior fellow at Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, said: “It certainly seems that the ICC is setting the stage for an enhanced voice to be given to these trade groups.”

Then there was Kim Havey, the sustainability director for the city of Minneapolis, who cast a vote in the last code-making cycle. In my last story, he warned that, absent stronger codes, his city — and possibly even his state of Minnesota — would go forward without the ICC, threatening to make the nonprofit body irrelevant. On Thursday afternoon, he told me he may look to press “the White House and Congress to throw the ICC in the compost bin of history and create a new oversight body to develop an energy code that works for the benefit of the people and our planet.”

“This is a classic example of leaving the fox to guard the hen house,” he said. “City leaders and their supporters will be meeting to discuss our options.”

It’s unclear what the Biden administration may try, but the Energy Department told me yesterday evening that it remains opposed to the change.

More details in the full story, which you can read here on HuffPost.


Thanks for reading.

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