New “Buy Clean” initiatives announced by the White House last week will make significant progress in helping the U.S. reduce the carbon emissions associated with manufacturing and installing construction materials, federal officials say, but some construction groups contend the policies could have unintended consequences. 

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, General Services Administration head Robin Carnahan and Deputy White House Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi announced the new policies at the Cleveland-Cliffs Direct Reduction Steel plant in Toledo, Ohio, Sept. 15, in a move to expand the scope of President Joe Biden’s Buy Clean plan first outlined in a December 2021 executive order. 

Speaking at the Toledo plant, Carnahan said, “If we can start here at the beginning of the supply chain, and make cleaner steel, concrete, asphalt and glass, we can make a real impact on climate change.” In March, GSA issued new standards to prioritize low-embodied carbon concrete and asphalt used in nationwide GSA construction, modernization and paving projects. These standards made up the first national “Buy Clean” procurement policy in the U.S., the agency said.

The new initiatives will establish federal agency procurement preferences for steel, concrete, asphalt and flat glass that have lower levels of “embodied” carbon, associated with the way they are manufactured, transported, installed, maintained and disposed of.

Additionally, the preference for low-embodied-carbon materials will be expanded to projects that receive federal funding. Other announcements included a federal effort to standardize environmental product declarations and the way their claims are verified. Construction firms often use those declarations when purchasing materials for projects. 

The announcements are the result of recommendations made by the Buy Clean Task Force, which now has 17 member agencies that account for 90% of all federally financed and purchased construction materials, the White House said.


Mixed Response

Environmental advocates, as well as steel manufacturing groups, say the Buy Clean policies will be a game-changer.

John Milko, consultant for climate and industry for The Third Way, a non-profit, told ENR, “This is a demand-side policy designed to accelerate the adoption of low-carbon manufacturing processes and technologies,” adding, “Just the size of the federal government’s procurement budget will urge manufacturers to adopt low-embodied carbon technologies and practices in order to compete for federal dollars.” And once manufacturing facilities begin prioritizing production of low-carbon materials for federal customers, those shifts will be seen in the private sector as well, he says. 

The American Institute of Steel Construction notes that the steel manufacturing industry has been going greener for decades as it has largely shifted to electric arc furnace technology, which emits less carbon than blast furnaces that burn coal, limestone or iron ore. “The smokestacks are long gone. In fact, the vast majority of the few emissions that remain from structural steel beam production now come from the power grid,” said group President Charles Carter in a statement. 

But groups representing construction contractors worry that their members may get the short end of the stick.

Ben Brubeck, vice president of regulatory, labor and state affairs at the Associated Builders and Contractors, says the Buy Clean policies are “concerning for [the group] and probably for a lot of the construction industry.” He said in an interview that materials costs in recent months “have gone up exponentially,” almost 43% for non-residential construction and materials since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. 

Michael Altman, the association's manager of regulatory affairs, suggests that Buy Clean policies could potentially make it more difficult to get emission reduction projects off the ground. For example, for the goal of building a nationwide electric vehicle charger network, the higher costs associated with Buy Clean or Buy America policies would “exacerbate existing supply chain shortages, which can mean fewer of those chargers being built or taking longer for them to be completed,” he said. 

Melinda Tomaino, Associated General Contractors’ director of environmental services, said she does not take issue with the idea of environmental product declarations or using low embodied carbon materials. But she worries about the potential liability risks and extra time needed for contractors that have new professional services requirements, such as materials reviews.

Moreover, the policies could limit project teams’ freedom to make the best design choices for their projects. On a concrete bridge, the design team might want to select materials based on durability and strength over the level of embodied carbon, she said.