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Data Shortfalls Vex Biden Bid to Green Government, Officials Say

June 29, 2022, 9:30 AM

The Biden administration needs more data in its quest to cut greenhouse gas emissions from its buildings, vehicles, and operations, various White House officials said.

Data on emissions reductions, as well as hydrology and energy usage, is needed to both guide federal agencies’ policy choices and make the business case to future administrations that cutting carbon is good for government, the officials said, speaking at a Tuesday conference sponsored by the Business Council for Sustainable Energy.

“This data has to be rock solid,” said Rachel Jacobson, assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy, and the environment. “The cost avoidance of not doing something is much worse than the investment you’re making now, but we have to show that.”

Biden’s federal sustainability plan envisions the entire federal government shifting to net-zero procurement by 2050 and 100% carbon-free electricity by 2030.

The federal government is the nation’s biggest electricity consumer, using more than 54 terawatt hours per year at an annual cost of $4.5 billion, according to the Council on Environmental Quality. One terawatt uses enough energy to continuously power 200,000 homes.

Data Efforts Underway

Several efforts to get better data are underway. For example, NASA will launch later this year its Surface Water and Ocean Topography satellite to provide granular hydrology data the federal government has never had before, according to Melanie Nakagawa, special assistant to the president and senior director for climate and energy at the National Security Council.

The satellite will allow the Biden administration to “do better predictive work,” guiding policy in a wide range of areas, including agriculture and food security, Nakagawa said.

In some cases, closer ties between agencies can help close data gaps. Jacobson said she wants to start drawing more on the Energy Department for basic data such as metering, energy usage, and “how we’re doing on our renewables and our cost savings.”

Several White House officials also stressed how badly the government must rely on the private sector to reach the Biden targets.

“We know we can’t do it alone,” said Joe Bryan, chief sustainability officer at the Defense Department. “We’ll never get enough appropriations. We need to leverage the private sector.”

To that end, each of the military services got more funding in the fiscal 2022 budget to “reestablish their capacity for third-party financing,” Bryan said.

Federal Building Standard

Also during the conference, Andrew Mayock, federal chief sustainability officer at CEQ, said his agency will be issuing a federal building performance standard within two to three months.

The plan could make a big dent in the nation’s carbon emissions because the government is the nation’s biggest property owner. At last count in 2019, the federal government owned more than 253,000 buildings—encompassing 2.4 billion square feet—and another 440,000 structures, according to the General Services Administration.

The standard is being issued because CEQ realized “we needed to be more rigorous about it and more pointed about it,” compared to past efforts from previous administrations that “didn’t speak to the decarbonization moment that we’re in today,” Mayock said.

Buildings are notoriously bad emitters, accounting for 13% of the nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, according to the EPA.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chuck McCutcheon at