A just-passed bill promoting a more expansive view of green building certification programs at the Pentagon is generating cheers among lobbyists opposed to an exclusive embrace of the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED system and a "bring it on" attitude from the USGBC. It also marks the start of what's likely to be a boisterous half-year debate on how Washington pursues green building.

Section 2830 of the National Defense Authorization Act, which Congress passed last week and now awaits president Barack Obama's signature, requires that the Defense Department deliver by June 30 a report on its energy-efficiency and sustainability standards as well as a cost-benefit analysis of LEED and several other green building standards. It also bars the Defense Department from spending any money in the current fiscal year (which ends next Sept. 30) to get LEED gold or platinum certification, though that prohibition comes with some loopholes.

Just as Pentagon staffers start work on their report, the General Services Administration (GSA)--the agency that builds, leases and maintains most federal buildings--plans by Dec. 30 to submit to the Energy Department a required study comparing green certification systems for commercial structures. In addition, efforts are under way to create by this spring an inter-agency discussion group on whether a federal green building system would be useful, given that the federal government already has adopted five major guilding principles for green that break down in to 27 legal requirements. And Congress--which views green construction from a jobs as well as an environmental and energy-saving perspective--is keeping a close eye on the issue

"The government has made a strong and prominent commitment toward green building," says Nadine Block, senior director for government outreach at the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). "… I don't think there's any fear they will be walking away from that. The question is how you get there."

Block is part of a loose coalition of green building advocates that dislike the hammerlock they regard LEED as having on much of Washington's federal construction community. Some, such as the Green Building Initiative (GBI), howl when agencies like the U.S. Navy or GSA declare LEED gold certification as their benchmark. (See GSA press release.) GBI and other groups maintain their green building certification systems are as good as or better than LEED, despite LEED's status as the premier green building program in commercial construction.

Those groups have teamed up with timber interests that protest LEED's recognition of wood certified as green by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) as the only certification system that merits a point toward a LEED plaque. Most certified wood in North America carries labels from groups such as SFI, the Canadian Standards Association, and the American Tree Farm System.

Block, who questions why federal agencies should be specifying LEED as their goal, welcomes the Congressoinal declaration requiring that the Pentagon consider other systems.

"I do see this as a positive development," she said. "It has forced federal agencies to take a hard look at costs and benefits of using a green building system like LEED." And while LEED may be a good program, she adds, "the federal government has a framework of guiding principles. Agencies are asking, 'Do we need a plaque on our buildings, or just a framework to guide what we're doing?'"

Erin Shaffer, GBI's vice president of federal outreach, said her gorup has rolled out a certification system based on the federal government's guilding principles that U.S. agencies could use to certify their buildings as green. "We need to have a free marketplace that's open to green rating systems," she said.

At the USGBC, legislative director Bryan Howard appeared to welcome a Pentagon review of the payback that comes from LEED and the other certification systems. "This is going to demonstrate what we already know about LEED," he said. "We believe that the cost-benefit study will put us in the positive light that will showcase our return on green investment to taxpayers."

As for the prohibition on spending for LEED gold or platinum certification, Howard noted the language requires that "no funds ... may be obligated or expended" for certification. But in the case of the Navy, which has said it will aim for LEED gold on all new buildings beginning in 2013, Howard said the bill gives that arm of the military a waiver because things it will be doing and the money it will be spending to get the lower LEED silver status is enough for it to rack up enough points for a higher-level certificate.

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., helped lead the effort to place the language into the appropriations bill on grounds that the Pentagon needed to think more about building products' green qualities over the course of their entire life--from the moment a product's raw materials are extracted from the earth to when that product's components are tossed out or, even better, recycled. This notion, called "life-cycle analysis," has been gaining much momentum in the green building community. And on this front, some groups--including GBI--have embraced life-cycle analysis.

"As the Department of Defense works to improve energy efficiency, it is important that its building standards be based on sound science and incorporate due process in their development and implementation," Wicker said in a statement. "Standards should take into consideration the full life cycle of wood products, including the environmental benefits provided by our domestic reforestation programs. After completing this study, the Department of Defense should use credible standards that more accurately assess U.S. wood products."

Wicker isn't the only person on Capitol Hill watching how the Pentagon spends money on green programs. In April, Rep. Larry Kissell, R-N.C., wrote to the Defense Department protesting plans to install a floor in a recreation facility at Camp Lejeune, N.C., that was made from imported bamboo. Typically, such floors have been made from U.S.-grown hardwoods. Bamboo is often touted as a green alternative to wood. The Pentagon withdrew its initial plans and re-bid the project.