Court Decision Does Not Clarify When Energy Efficient Codes Are Preempted

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On June 26, 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit decided the BIA v. State of Washington case. The opinion can be downloaded here.

 In its decision, the Ninth Circuit held that the Washington State energy efficient building code was not preempted by Federal law.  This ruling was contrary to the ruling in a companion case, AHRI v. City of Albequerque, which was before the Federal District Court for the District of New Mexico. In the Albuquerque case, the court held that the code was preempted. 

Because there was a split, the interesting question is whether the cases, when read together, create a clear legal framework for ensuring that local energy efficient building codes are not preempted. In my opinion, the Washington court did not articulate a clear rule that can be used to guide local governments through the preemption waters. 

Both Albuquerque and the State of Washington passed building codes requiring that new buildings achieve certain levels of energy efficiency. In their suits, the trade associations alleged that the codes were invalid because they were preempted by Federal law.  Specifically, the trade associations alleged that the codes mandated the use of heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems that exceeded the energy efficiency standards set by the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 ("EPCA"), 42 U.S.C. Sec. 6295, et seq.

The Albuquerque code offered two paths–a prescriptive path, under which the installation of HVAC exceeding the Federal standard was required, and a performance path, under which a builder could choose how to acheive the required level of efficiency.  Early on, the Albequerque court held that the prescriptive path was preempted.  Ultimately, the court found that the performance path was not severable from the prescriptive path, and did not reach a verdict on the preemption of the performance path. 

The Washington code did not have a prescriptive path.  Rather, the Washington code had a point system, where different building techniques, including the installation of energy efficient HVAC systems, acheived different "scores."   

The Washington court differentiated the Washington and Albequerque codes based on the costs imposed on the builder for not using high efficiency HVAC equipment, not to the difference between a prescriptive and a performance standard.  The court reasoned:

Albuquerque’s ordinance imposed costs, as a matter of law, on builders who installed certain covered products meeting federal standards, by requiring the builder to install additional products that would compensate for not using a higher efficiency product. As the [Albequerque] court explained, “if products at the federal efficiency standard are used, a building owner must make other modifications to the home to increase its energy efficiency.” The Albuquerque ordinance thus effectively required use of higher efficiency products by imposing a penalty through the code itself.

Here, by contrast, the Washington Building Code itself imposes no additional costs on builders. The district court noted that there are “substantial differences” between the Washington Building Code and Albuquerque’s ordinance. It correctly rejected the Plaintiffs’ argument concerning subsection (B), explaining that the Washington Building Code created no penalties, and did not require higher efficiency products as the “only way to comply with the code.”

In the Washington code, however, it appears that the same costs are imposed on the builders.  If a builder chooses to use a standard HVAC system, the builder must make other changes to acheive the required points.  Later in the opinion, the Court acknowledged that the cost of adopting the other changes (and not installing more efficient HVAC equipment) could be higher. 

Unfortunately, I do not see how the Washington court’s analysis works to differentiate the Albuquerque code from the Washington code.  As a result, it does not make clear what type of structure is "safe" for local governments to adopt, and not risk a preemption fight. 

 

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About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.

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