BlueGreen Alliance | Buy Clean on the Federal Stage – From Concept to Reality

Buy Clean on the Federal Stage – From Concept to Reality

December 22, 2021

The following post is authored by Charlie Martin, BlueGreen Alliance Policy Advisor. 

On December 8, 2021, President Biden released Executive Order 14057 (EO), “Catalyzing Clean Energy Industries and Jobs Through Federal Sustainability,” and the accompanying Federal Sustainability Plan, officially launching the first-ever national Buy Clean program. In his EO, President Biden outlined pathways for the federal government to use its scale and procurement power to help achieve net-zero emissions economy-wide by no later than 2050. Buy Clean policy is included in this strategy for the first time ever in federal procurement. 

Buy Clean, a groundbreaking policy spearheaded by the BlueGreen Alliance (BGA) and partners in California, promotes spending taxpayer dollars on materials that are manufactured in a cleaner, more efficient, environmentally-friendly manner—reducing industrial pollution and health impacts, supporting good-paying jobs, and supporting globally-competitive domestic manufacturing.

With this EO, the administration is taking the decisive steps to ensure that federal procurement—like all federal activities—are undertaken in a way that reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, improves health and environmental outcomes in communities harmed by environmental injustice, and creates good jobs across the United States.

How Buy Clean Started 

The origins of Buy Clean came from two key issues BGA and its partners identified. First was the recognition of regular instances across the country of domestic manufacturers looking to participate in the government bidding process and secure an infrastructure project contract, but losing out to foreign competitors, often from countries with weaker environmental, public health, and worker protections. Specifically, the rebuild of the eastern section of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge and the California Department of Transportation’s (CALTRANS) bidding process spurred BGA and its partners to action.

CALTRANS awarded the contract to supply key materials to an overseas firm that successfully priced out unionized domestic manufacturers that have cleaner production processes. The materials were produced at a far dirtier facility than those in the U.S., and an analysis by BGA found that an estimated 180,000 tons of carbon emissions would have been averted—which is equivalent to taking 38,000 cars off the road for a year—had the steel been procured from a U.S. supplier instead.  

Not only that, but the materials also proved to be of low-quality, requiring repairs and replacement pieces, which contributed in part to the $6.5 billion project going far over the original $250 million estimate in 1997. Had that original bidding process factored in environmental performance standards, those procurement dollars could have gone toward better-made, lower-carbon materials produced here in the U.S. at much cleaner, unionized facilities.

The other key issue that led to Buy Clean’s creation was the fact that the industrial sector is the fastest growing source of GHG emissions internationally. Materials produced in energy-intensive sectors, such as steel, cement, and concrete, produce a significant amount of “embodied emissions,” the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other pollutants emitted during the manufacturing of a particular material. The global iron and steel industry alone accounts for around 21% of global industrial energy use and 24% of industrial CO2 emissions. These emissions are exacerbated when the U.S. imports products and materials from overseas that are manufactured in ways that would not meet U.S. federal or state environmental and emissions standards. 

Manufacturing—the lion’s share of the industrial sector—is enormously important. It is not only a linchpin of the U.S. domestic economy, but also an important pathway to strong, middle-class jobs. Yet time and again, the U.S. has lost manufacturing opportunities—and therefore jobs—to competitors in countries with lower environmental and health standards and higher emitting facilities. Many of these imported products and materials could be made here in the U.S. by American workers.

One of the most significant barriers for real change in the manufacturing sector has been the lack of demand for products with lower embodied emissions. In the absence of a carbon price or similar mechanism, markets would need to be created to support a transition to cleaner, low-carbon materials.

Governments—whether federal, state, or local—are major purchasers of the materials used to build public infrastructure. While there are already domestic-preference procurement rules here in the U.S. at the federal level for some such products and materials, there currently aren’t any preferences for those that are specifically environmentally friendly or low carbon.

The lack of preference for lower-embodied carbon goods translates into a huge opportunity to update government procurement rules, incentivize the adoption of innovative technologies and processes, and reward those companies that are doing things the right way.

So a simple question came out from both the review of the bidding process for the Bay Bridge and the recognition that these lower embodied carbon goods aren’t prioritized in the construction of public infrastructure: shouldn’t domestic manufacturers be rewarded for operating less-polluting facilities rather than be undercut by overseas firms in countries with weak or nonexistent environmental and labor protections?

This question guided BGA’s first Buy Clean steps back in 2017 in California. With the help of a broad coalition of labor, environment, and other stakeholders and a strong legislative champion, we were able to develop the country’s first Buy Clean legislation and ultimately secure passage of the Buy Clean California Act that October. As part of that law, contractors will have to begin to show that certain infrastructure materials do not exceed the new emissions standards that are scheduled to be released in January 2022.

The passage of Buy Clean in California gave BGA and our partners the momentum to lead similar efforts in other states, including Oregon, Washington State, Minnesota, and most recently in Colorado, where the Buy Clean Colorado Act was signed into law this past summer.

Executive Action to Bring Buy Clean to the Federal Level

Building on this momentum at the state level and the Biden administration’s commitment to tackle climate change while supporting domestic manufacturing and good union jobs, BGA brought together a broad coalition of labor unions, environmental groups, center-right organizations, industry and manufacturing associations, and individual companies around a federal policy framework for a federal Buy Clean program.

With President Biden’s Executive Order, Buy Clean now exists at the federal level!

The President’s EO sets a goal of achieving net-zero emissions from federal procurement by 2050. To achieve this goal, the EO establishes a federal Buy Clean initiative, a Net-Zero Emissions Procurement Federal Leaders Working Group, and a Buy Clean Task Force to provide recommendations on policies and procedures to expand consideration of embodied emissions and pollutants of construction materials in Federal procurement and federally funded projects.

The Buy Clean Task Force will be composed of representatives of agencies designated by the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and will oversee Buy Clean.

Among other provisions, the EO charges the Task Force with providing:

  • Recommendations on materials and pollutants to be covered under the policy;
    • For materials, this could include steel, concrete, cement, aluminum, flat glass, wood products, insulation and others;
    • For pollutants, it could be GHGs and other air, water, and land pollutants;
  • Recommendations on increasing transparency of embodied emissions, including supplier reporting, specifically calling out environmental product declarations (EPDs);
    • EPDs are a commonly-used reporting mechanism here in the United States as well as in Europe;
    • They include a calculation of embodied GHGs of a given material, and communicates transparent and comparable information about the environmental impact and life-cycle assessment of a product;
    • The Task Force is also tasked with providing recommendations for auditing those EPDs; 
  • Recommendations for grants, loans, technical assistance, or other mechanisms to support domestic manufacturers in the reporting and reduction of embodied emissions; and
  • Recommendations for pilot programs to incentivize procurement of lower embodied-emission materials.

Done right, these steps will ensure a comprehensive Buy Clean program is built upon a foundation of data transparency and disclosure of the embodied GHG emissions in the major materials and products purchased with federal funds.

The Buy Clean sections are fairly general and less specific than other sections found in the executive order. This makes sense, in part because so much of the expansion of the policy will depend on the information and data gathered from EPDs and from the continued engagement with key stakeholders and organizations, including representatives of manufacturers of relevant construction materials, labor organizations, fenceline communities, and environmental organizations.

The knowledge gleaned from incoming data will help guide further investments wherever necessary and inform policymakers in setting eventual environmental performance standards.

What’s next for Buy Clean?

While the EO’s framework for Buy Clean is a groundbreaking step forward, a successful Buy Clean program will absolutely need funding, and the Build Back Better Act (BBBA) has that. 

The House-passed BBBA provides $250 million for financial and technical assistance to manufacturers to develop their own EPDs for their respective materials and products. Data reporting and transparency is absolutely key to a comprehensive Buy Clean policy.

The BBBA also includes complementary funding for research, development, and demonstration  for industrial decarbonization efforts as well as to support big capital expenditures to retool and retrofit existing manufacturing facilities and build new facilities to meet the demand for materials with lower embodied emissions. 

Reducing industrial emissions is a win for our climate, our economy, and our country. If Buy Clean is to succeed at the national-level, this funding will need to be prioritized. BGA is working hard to help the BBBA get over the finish line in Congress and to the President’s desk for his signature.

Setting Ourselves Up for Success

The U.S. faces a series of misaligned incentives as it tries to confront industrial emissions, a core piece of our climate crisis. No domestic market exists yet to reward companies that are doing things the right way by making investments to reduce their emissions. This EO sets the stage to improve the way the federal government purchases such necessary materials and products, which hold the key to creating a market for firms that innovate, reduce emissions, and create good jobs.

A federal Buy Clean initiative that prioritizes transparency, invests in innovation, and ties our public dollars to low-carbon materials holds the promise of transforming some of the most carbon-intensive sectors in our economy, allowing us to confront climate change while reinvesting in and rebuilding the middle class. 

By taking the first steps to establish such a program with this executive order, President Biden and his administration will ensure the U.S. federal government leads by example on climate action, environmental justice, the creation of good jobs, and the strengthening of our domestic manufacturing.