The Biden administration proposed a rule Wednesday to cut emissions from new or newly renovated government buildings by fully electrifying the buildings and eliminating natural gas for heat and other uses, beginning as soon as 2025.
The government is a major owner of real estate by way of federal buildings, and the new proposal is viewed by proponents as key to achieving President Joe Biden’s goals of net-zero emissions in all federal buildings by 2045 and a net-zero U.S. economy by 2050.
The 2050 pledge is in line with pledges made by the rest of the developed world.
The buildings will be required to reduce on-site emissions associated with energy consumption, such as for heating and hot water, by 90% relative to 2003 levels by as soon as 2025. In 2030, the standard will fully decarbonize on-site emissions in new federal buildings and buildings undergoing major renovations.
Buildings are a major source of greenhouse-gas emissions in the U.S., and fossil fuels such as crude oil
and heating oil
that are used in federal buildings account for over 25% of all federal emissions, according to Department of Energy data.
“Ridding pollution from our buildings and adopting clean electricity are some of the most cost-effective and future-oriented solutions we have to combat climate change,” said Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm.
Granholm said that Wednesday’s proposal provides a timetable for reaching these goals.
“‘The largest real-estate owner in the country is planning to eliminate on-site emissions from new buildings by 2030 and improve its existing ones by electrifying them and reducing energy waste.’”
— Steven Nadel, executive director of trade group ACEEE
If enacted within the proposed time frame, the new emission-reduction requirements would save taxpayers $8 million annually in upfront equipment costs, the Department of Energy estimates.
“The largest real-estate owner in the country is planning to eliminate on-site emissions from new buildings by 2030 and improve its existing ones by electrifying them and reducing energy waste,” said Steven Nadel, executive director of the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficiency Economy (ACEEE). “It’s a plan that could reduce the government’s capital costs and make a big cut to its greenhouse-gas emissions.”
Nadel said the federal government can, by virtue of scale, create more incentive for states, cities and private-sector building owners to follow its lead and decarbonize.
Over the next 30 years, the new rule would reduce carbon emissions from federal buildings by 1.86 million metric tons and methane emissions by 22,800 tons.
Net-zero emissions can be reached by burning less of fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas, but also by offsetting greenhouse-gas emissions by planting trees, which sequester carbon, or by carbon capture and storage at the point of fuel combustion, which the Biden administration has also backed.
The American Gas Association, which represents gas utilities, said the administration’s proposal and its cost-savings estimates don’t jibe with government data that also project natural gas will be roughly 30% to 50% of the price of other fuels through 2050.
The AGA also says that removing direct-use applications of gas in buildings in favor of electric heat pumps, for instance, will simply shift gas use to the electric-generation sector, meaning the power utilities themselves, which can be more costly and less efficient, resulting in higher greenhouse gas emissions overall.
Natural gas was the major replacement for coal in powering U.S. electricity; wind and solar also provide power.
“Eliminating natural gas in federal buildings is an impractical, unscientific and expensive idea that will have no environmental benefit,” said Karen Harbert, president and CEO of the AGA.
“In reality, the demand for electricity fueled by natural gas will only increase and the costs will be borne by every taxpayer. Today, 187 million Americans use natural gas in their homes every day, more people than voted in the last election,” she said.
The Energy Department’s proposed rule will not penalize agencies for using fossil fuels to conduct mission-critical activities such as those related to national security. In addition, the DOE has established a petition process that will address concerns about technical feasibility for specific applications within a given building and climate zone.
“ ‘The demand for electricity fueled by natural gas will only increase and the costs will be borne by every taxpayer.’ ”
— AGA President and CEO Karen Harbert
Biden, by executive order and via his Inflation Reduction Act, has positioned climate change high among his priorities, but he’s been hampered by inflation in the price of gasoline and volatile energy markets after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But climate-change experts say global warming can’t be ignored every time short-term crises emerge. Greenhouse-gas emissions are pushing up yearly average temperatures, making the ocean more acidic and intensifying natural disasters like hurricanes. Inaction on climate change will cost the global economy $178 trillion over the next 50 years, according to the Deloitte Center for Sustainable Progress.
There has been pressure on the U.S. to lead by example.
“Global and national climate commitments are falling pitifully short,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said this fall. “We are headed for a global catastrophe.”