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New homes under construction Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021, in Simi Valley, Calif. Credit: AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

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The nonprofit responsible for developing model building energy codes used by cities and states nationwide finalized a controversial plan Thursday to strip voting rights from thousands of public sector members — a move clean energy advocates fear will slow progress in achieving more efficient buildings and reducing emissions that fuel climate change. 

The decision, which critics say was made to appease the interests of industry groups representing homebuilders and natural gas utilities, came during a Wednesday meeting of the International Code Council’s board of directors. Unlike with its previous meeting in January, the board did not stream Wednesday’s meeting for the public to view. 

The change to the code-setting process was set in motion last fall when groups including the National Association of Home Builders and Leading Builders of America cried foul over the latest code development cycle, during which state and local government officials voted in record numbers, resulting in the code’s biggest efficiency gains in at least a decade

In response to the record voting turnout, industry groups alleged voting irregularities and “improper use of voting guides” that had been distributed by efficiency advocates. (The Code Council conducted a review of the voting process and found no evidence of irregularities.) Industry representatives also said the process needed to change because energy codes were getting more complex, requiring a higher level of expertise among voting members. 

“This is a classic case of changing the rules in the middle of the game,” said Lauren Urbanek, a senior energy policy advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a statement following the ICC’s announcement. “It’s extremely troubling that the ICC Board unnecessarily voted to strip the power from local government officials on the very codes they oversee, after they voted overwhelmingly to make our homes and other buildings more energy efficient and avoid harmful pollution from burning fossil fuels inside them.”

Other environmental, clean energy and trade groups also condemned the decision. 

“We are deeply disappointed to see the ICC move forward with this change, which we believe will present a step backwards for climate action,” said Robert Ivy, CEO of the American Institute of Architects, in a statement.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, AIA Senior Director of Advocacy Cindy Schwartz said the decision could impact the relationship between the ICC and AIA, which is one of the Code Council’s founding strategic partners. 

“AIA is committed to finding energy solutions and transforming the profession of architecture as it relates to climate,” Schwartz said. “If we can’t do that through the ICC, then what? We have to really think about that. There’s nothing that says [the energy code] has to come from the ICC standard.”

Meanwhile, NAHB Chairman Chuck Fowke praised the ICC’s decision, calling it “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,” according to a statement. “NAHB looks forward to participating in the new standards development process to maximize cost-effective efficiency improvements in the residential energy codes.”

With the ICC’s decision, final say over future editions of the International Energy Conservation Code will go to a committee comprising building code officials, industry groups and other stakeholders, including some clean energy advocates. The committee will be appointed by the ICC’s board, and government officials will make up one-third of the members, the ICC said. 

The organization said the new process would “allow for more in-depth scientific and economic deliberations, quicker progress to meeting public and private sector goals, and the development of a broader consensus that will support wider application and adoption.”

The ICC also announced the creation of an Energy and Carbon Advisory Council that will be made up of “governmental and industry leaders” to inform the organization’s efforts. The new council “will advise on which additional greenhouse gas reduction policies the IECC should integrate” and “the pace that the IECC’s baseline efficiency requirements should advance.”

“The Code Council is committed to furthering the progress the IECC has made to date and ensuring our energy code continues to meet the needs of governments around the world to advance their energy efficiency goals,” said Dominic Sims, the organization’s CEO, in a statement. 

Changes faced broad pushback

As word of the ICC’s proposed changes circulated, the organization received pushback from state and local building and energy departments, federal officials and lawmakers and from within the ICC itself. 

In February, the ICC’s Sustainability Membership Council voted 6-1 to recommend against removing government officials from the voting process. 

Donald Mock, a building code official for Maryland’s Howard County and member of the ICC’s sustainability council, previously told ENN he thought the ICC should fine-tune its existing process — rather than change it entirely — in order to keep building code officials engaged. 

“In the past, there’s been a lack of code officials that get involved with energy, and I see a change happening,” he said. “Building departments are hiring more experts in the energy code area, and as we get more and more people involved, those people get involved with the [code development] process.”

In recent weeks, a number of federal lawmakers — including U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee members Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), Bobby Rush (D-IL) and Diana DeGette (D-CO), in addition to Sen .Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) — wrote to the ICC opposing its planned changes

The U.S. Department of Energy also raised concerns.

“The need for the proposed changes remains unclear to DOE, and has the potential to significantly constrain stakeholder engagement,” wrote the DOE’s Acting Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Kelly Speakes-Backman in a letter to the ICC board last week. “We believe this could be detrimental to an appropriate process with appropriate transparency, and could limit the ability of the IECC to keep pace with evolving technologies and construction practices, and the delivery of important economic and environmental benefits at the local level.” 

DOE officials held a call with ICC leaders earlier this week, prior to the board’s meeting. It was unclear what impact, if any, the call had on the Code Council’s decision-making process. 

The ICC’s decision to overhaul its energy code development process was surprising to many given that the organization had praised its existing system, noting that the process left the final decision up to “public officials who, with no vested financial interest, can legitimately represent the public interest.” 

“From an organization that lauds its consensus process, that talks about the need for transparency and the importance of bringing more voices into the process to now want to limit that process and limit that input and that transparency is puzzling,” said the AIA’s Schwartz. 

Bill Fay, head of the Energy Efficient Codes Coalition, said the confidence level among government officials in the ICC “is really at a low level right now.” He also said he could envision states and municipalities abandoning the IECC and organizing their own process for setting future energy codes. 

“Would it be hard to do an alternative? I don’t think so,” Fay said. “When I take a look at the energy expertise of our state energy officials, of our sustainability officers, of our energy leaders in cities and states around the country, I think that really that expertise could very easily, if there was a forum for it, I think it could really be a tremendously written [code].”

Alex Ruppenthal

Alex is a Chicago-based journalist who spent nearly three years covering the environment and public health for the website of WTTW/PBS Chicago, with previous stops at GateHouse Media New England, MLB.com and other news organizations. He has reported on topics including sexual abuse in youth sports, police misconduct, counterterrorism programs and immigration. His work has been published by Chicago magazine, ProPublica Illinois, WBEZ, Tribune Publishing, ESPNChicago.com and other outlets.