President Obama Signs Executive Order Prompting Federal Leadership in Environmental Responsibility and Energy Efficient Practices

Date: November 4, 2009

On October 5, 2009, President Obama issued Executive Order 13514 which sets sustainability goals for Federal agencies and focuses on making improvements in their environmental, energy and economic performance. According to President Obama, Executive Order 13514 is aimed at creating a "clean energy economy" that is intended, in turn, to increase the nation's prosperity, promote energy security, protect the interests of taxpayers, and safeguard the health of our environment. Building on Executive Order 13423, signed by President George W. Bush on January 24, 2007, Executive Order 13514 marks the most sweeping "green" Federal policy to date. Notably, the Order recognizes that green initiatives are comprised of both environmental and fiscal concerns. Indeed, a White House press release suggests the policy will benefit taxpayers through substantial energy savings from more efficient practices.

The Order mandates that Federal agencies implement a variety of initiatives aimed at reducing the Federal government's carbon footprint, including, but not limited to the following goals: set a 2020 greenhouse gas emissions reduction target within 90 days; increase energy efficiency; reduce fleet petroleum consumption; reduce waste; conserve water; support sustainable communities; and leverage Federal purchasing power to promote environmentally responsible products and services.

Executive Order 13514 sets forth established timeframes for Federal agencies to develop agency-specific plans that identify strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These agency-specific plans, referred to as Strategic Sustainability Performance Plans under the Order, prioritizes each agency's actions toward the goals of the Executive Order based on lifecycle return on investment. In developing these plans, agencies are to consider initiatives which reduce the use of fossil fuels, foster energy efficiency through renewable sources, improve water efficiency, promote waste reduction, and encourage smart growth and sustainable design practices. Some of the specific targets set forth in the Executive Order are as follows:

  • 30% reduction in vehicle fleet petroleum use by 2020;
  • 26% improvement in water efficiency by 2020;
  • 50% recycling and waste diversion by 2015;
  • 95% of all applicable contracts will meet sustainability requirements;
  • Implementation of the 2030 net-zero-energy building requirement;
  • Implementation of the stormwater provisions of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, section 438; and
  • Development of guidance for sustainable Federal building locations in alignment with the Livability Principles put forward by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

To achieve the lofty goals identified in the Executive Order, Federal agencies are being called to act swiftly in measuring, managing and reducing greenhouse gas emissions towards agency-defined targets. Under the Order, Federal programs are to be audited and evaluated annually with a full accounting for both economical and social benefits and costs. Results of these evaluations, as well as the decisions to extend, expand, or discontinue certain programs shall be made available to the public via government websites.

In addition to the sustainability goals, Executive Order 13514 sets forth a rule making process to which Federal agencies will be required to adhere in implementing the Executive Order. There are a number of steps to the rulemaking process:

  • agencies must inform the public of proposed rules before they take effect;
  • the public can comment on the proposed rules and provide additional data to the agency;
  • the public can access the rulemaking record and analyze the data and analysis behind a proposed rule;
  • the agency analyzes and responds to the public's comments;
  • the agency creates a permanent record of its analysis and the process;

A policy this broad in nature is necessarily going to require some exceptions and exemptions. By its own terms, intelligence, law enforcement, and national security functions are eligible for exemption. Under the Order, The Director of National Intelligence has the power to exempt various intelligence activities and facilities. Other agency heads are granted the ability to issue exemptions, but must request approval from the President through the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality.

Opponents of Executive Order 13514 have been quick to criticize the initiative, claiming that it simply provides "busy work" for Federal agencies. Some suggest that the goals are unattainable and may interfere with the actual functions and missions of the various agencies affected. Others theorize that agencies will be encouraged to inflate their baseline measurements in order to increase their ability to comply with improvement requirements. Because the policy, by its own terms, does not create any legally enforceable rights, accountability will necessarily have to come from within and cannot be policed by the citizens.

Whether the objectives of this policy are unattainable or are disregarded by the agencies or their employees has yet to be seen. Regardless of the statistical results of the implementation of this policy, its real impact is derived from the Federal government committing to lead by example and set concrete expectations for its own performance.