International Code Council Takes A Dive For American Gas Association

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The International Code Council is a private nonprofit organization that brings together local governments, lobbyists, and industry professionals every three years to update the energy codes that will be followed by thousands of state, county, and municipal officials all across America. On its website, it says, “Our mission is to provide the information, tools, and resources that members rely on, building safety professionals turn to, and the public trusts.”

Last fall, the Code Council, which really isn’t any more international than the World Series, proposed adding new rules that would have required new buildings to make provisions for wiring heat pumps, electric car chargers, and electric stoves. Adding those circuits would increase the cost of new homes and commercial buildings somewhat, but would save consumers many thousands of dollars in installation costs later. Those appliances could also save consumers tens of thousands of dollars over the useful life of a building by lowering heating and cooling costs and eliminating the need to buy gasoline for their cars and trucks.

When the American Gas Association and the manufacturers of oil- and gas-fired heating equipment got wind of the proposed changes, they lost their minds. Who did these people think they were to be making adjustments to their codes that would promote more sustainable buildings with lower emissions that would save people money? There are profits to be made, dammit, and we won’t stand for all this progressive, woke nonsense! So they appealed.

The appeals board for the International Code Council rejected all the challenges earlier this month and urged the organization’s board of directors to do the same. But on March 19, 2024, the board took the unusual step of ruling against its own experts to side with the fossil fuel companies, scrapping key codes meant to make electric cars, solar panels, induction stoves, and heat pumps more affordable. As a result, the Huffington Post reports, almost every code the trade groups challenged will now be relegated to the optional appendix section of the code book, essentially eliminating the chances of widespread adoption across the country.

So what happened? Quite obviously, the International Code Council board got steamrollered by the AGA. And the money to do so came directly from the millions of gas company customers all across America. In an email to CleanTechnica, Caleb Heeringa, program director for the Gas Leaks Project, sponsored by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, said that just about every gas utility in the country is a member of the American Gas Association and most use money from their customers’ bills to pay their membership fees. That means that more than 70 million Americans may be paying for the AGA’s fossil fuel advocacy and misleading advertising every month without ever knowing it.

“This is just the latest example of the American Gas Association undermining the clean energy transition. The AGA has helped strip cities of the right to pass climate friendly building codes, hired tobacco industry scientists to mislead the public about the health threat of gas stoves, and helped launch pro-fossil fuel front groups. No one should be forced to pay for fossil fuel advocacy every time they pay a monthly energy bill.”

A Setback For Common Sense

The Hufffington Post says the refusal of the International Code Commission to listen to its own staff and appeals board marks a setback for US efforts to speed up the deployment of electric heating and vehicles and increases the number of buildings that will ultimately require costly retrofits to meet modern energy standards. “Really bad and surprising news,” Mike Waite, the director of codes at the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy and a volunteer who helped author this year’s commercial building codes, said in an email to the Huffington Post. “The ICC Board went against their consensus committees, appeals board, and staff.”

Waite said industry organizations have loud voices, but use them to “represent the lowest common denominator among their members.” “I suspect most businesses will not even know that the ICC saddled them with a huge bill in the future, since this process is so opaque,” he said. “The entire argument for consensus processes is to bring together diverse experts to address challenges of society that [individuals] do not have the bandwidth to dive into themselves. But because that process is so complex and not intuitive, those who administer these processes have a responsibility to do so honestly. The ICC has failed this test.”

The surprise decision to overturn the appeals board’s ruling comes after the ICC violated its own internal policies to give the industry groups extra time to file appeals. Advocates, who called the move a “scandal,” were relieved when the appeals board delivered what seemed like a final verdict. The board of directors has typically followed the appeals board’s recommendations. The decision by the ICC marks a setback for US efforts to speed up the deployment of electric heating and vehicles and increases the number of buildings that will ultimately require costly retrofits to meet modern energy standards.

“Openness, transparency, and consensus are cornerstones of the code and standards development process,” said Patrick Hughes, a senior vice president at the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, which represents makers of electrical equipment. It has strongly supported the greener codes. “This decision flies in the face of those principles and is a stark example of how a select few can overturn the desire of many.”

A History Lesson

Historically, the ICC’s gatherings to update the codes each year were sleepy affairs. Industry professionals and lobby groups joined municipal building inspectors to debate what should be in the latest codes, but only the local government officials could vote on the final product. For years, that process yielded only 1% increases in energy efficiency each time.

After the 2018 United Nations report on climate change warned that the window to avoid the worst effects of warming through cutting emissions was closing, mayors across the US banded together to take local actions to reduce planet heating pollution, particularly as the Trump administration pursued an opposite approach at the federal level. When those governments approved codes that increased energy efficiency from the previous year by double-digit percentages, major industry groups balked and filed appeals and the ICC appeals board sided with the fossil fuel firms.

The International Code Commission then decided to overhaul the entire process and eliminated the right of government officials to vote on the final product. Critics accused the new system of giving too much say to industry representatives with a financial incentive to slow down the country’s shift away from fossil fuels. Nonprofit workers and municipal building inspectors who volunteer many hours to the code writing process complained that the new system took far more time than the previous method, making it harder for volunteers to give as much time as lobbyists paid to be there.

The International Code Council & Politics

The American Gas Association cheered the ruling. “The ICC Board of Directors made the right decision for the United States to be more energy efficient in removing these deeply problematic provisions from the code base,” American Gas Association CEO Karen Harbert said in an email forwarded to the Huffington Post.

The Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI), which had also filed an appeal of the proposed rules mandating more preinstalled electrical hookups, said because Republican legislators have passed laws in recent years that limit the power of cities and towns to prohibit natural gas hookups, it would have made the greener codes difficult to enact. The group, which represents furnace manufacturers, “applauded the decision.”

Stephen Yurek, AHRI CEO, said in an emailed statement to the Huffington Post, “If provisions in the [energy codes] increase the likelihood of legal action because of preemption issues or reduce the likelihood that certain states and localities will adopt it, less overall energy will be saved.” In other words, if governments allow industry pressure groups to shove money into their wallets, well, what can anyone do?

While the U.S. does not have federally mandated building codes, virtually every state uses the ICC codes as a guideline. In some big states, like Illinois, local law requires regulators to adopt the latest and greenest codes automatically. States like Idaho haven’t meaningfully updated their codes in over a decade and even want to prevent cities and towns from exceeding the low statewide standards. But even laggards may have new incentives to catch up. The Inflation Reduction Act provides $1 billion in funding to give states technical assistance to update their codes to the latest standards.

An Unforced Error That May Be Fatal

Since 2021, advocates and officials concerned over what they saw as the capture of the ICC by the industry players have began considering alternative code books. This latest action by the International Code Commission may lead to its demise, as the stench of corruption is so strong it could lead to calls to scrap the ICC altogether in favor of another model altogether.

Last week, the World Meteorological Organization certified that 2023 was the hottest year in human history. This is no time for pliant private officials to knuckle under to industry pressure. If the International Code Council won’t do the job it is supposed to do, it should be replaced by people who understand the impending climate emergency and are willing to address it with bold new rules that support more energy efficient homes and commercial buildings. Anything less is simply malfeasance enabled by willful ignorance.

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