Because I Said So--Obama's Federal Leadership In Environmental, Energy and Economic Performance Executive Order

On October 5, 2009, President Barack Obama issued an executive order entitled "Federal Leadership In Environmental, Energy and Economic Performance." According to the preamble to the EO, the purpose is to:

In order to create a clean energy economy that will increase our Nation's prosperity, promote energy security, protect the interests of taxpayers, and safeguard the health of our environment, the Federal Government must lead by example. It is therefore the policy of the United States that Federal agencies shall increase energy efficiency; measure, report, and reduce their greenhouse gasemissions from direct and indirect activities; conserve andprotect water resources through efficiency, reuse, and stormwater management; eliminate waste, recycle, and prevent pollution; leverage agency acquisitions to foster markets for sustainable technologies and environmentally preferable materials, products, and services; design, construct, maintain, and operate highperformance sustainable buildings in sustainable locations; strengthen the vitality and livability of the communities in which Federal facilities are located; and inform Federal employees about and involve them in the achievement of these goals.

It is further the policy of the United States that toachieve these goals and support their respective missions,agencies shall prioritize actions based on a full accountingof both economic and social benefits and costs and shall drive continuous improvement by annually evaluating performance,extending or expanding projects that have net benefits, and reassessing or discontinuing under-performing projects.

Finally, it is also the policy of the United States thatagencies' efforts and outcomes in implementing this order shallbe transparent and that agencies shall therefore disclose results associated with the actions taken pursuant to this order onpublicly available Federal websites.

 Whoa.  I will analyze in later posts the various programs included in the EO, but first it must be recognized that this is an enormous step.  The EO sets out ambitious goals for every federal agency to pursue sustainable priorities, including developing net-zero buildings, and to report on their environmental performance. 

Can the president do this with the stroke of a pen? The answer is a definite maybe. 

Let's start with the basics.  What is an Executive Order exactly? 

U.S. Presidents have issued executive orders since 1789. Although there is no Constitutional provision or statute that explicitly permits executive orders, there is a vague grant of "executive power" given in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, and the statement "take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed" in Article II, Section 3. Most executive orders are orders issued by the President to US executive officers to help direct their operation, the consequence of failing to comply being removal from office.

The scope of a president's authority to make law via executive order was analyzed in YOUNGSTOWN CO. v. SAWYER, 343 U.S. 579 (1952)

To avert a nation-wide strike of steel workers in April 1952, which he believed would jeopardize national defense, the President issued an Executive Order directing the Secretary of Commerce to seize and operate most of the steel mills.  

The major distinction drawn in Younsgtown was between law and policy:

The President's power, if any, to issue the order must stem either from an act of Congress or from the Constitution itself. There is no statute that expressly authorizes the President to take possession of property as he did here. Nor is there any act of Congress to which our attention has been directed from which such a power can fairly be implied. Indeed, we do not understand the Government to rely on statutory authorization for this seizure.

So what is the authority under which President Obama issued the Federal Leadership In Environmental, Energy and Economic Performance EO? Um...Um...Um...No specific law or statute is cited, indeed the only legal justification is:

By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution.

This is not as thin on the ground as it may seem.  When the government acts as a "market participant"--i.e. like a private actor--it has broad flexibility.  For example, government entities acting as market participants are not subject to the same Constitutional restrictions as where the state is governing private entities.  See, e.g. SOUTH-CENTRAL TIMBER V. WUNNICKE, 467 U. S. 82, 93 (1984) (“Our cases make clear that, if a State is acting as a market participant, rather than as a market regulator, the dormant Commerce Clause places no limitation on its activities.”)  The federal government is largely free to make its own requirements for its purchases and projects, which may include setting a standard for its practices, like net-zero.

However, the requirements set forth in the Federal Leadership In Environmental, Energy and Economic Performance EO are likely to be costly, time-consuming and restricting on Federal agencies.  For example, beginning in 2020, all new Federal buildings that enter the planning process are designed to acheive net-zero energy by 2030.  95% of new contract actions must be energy efficient. 

This is not a bad thing--it is very strong and ambitious.  If implemented, it will be a significant step forward in environmental stewardship.  The General Services Administration alone owns and leases over 354 million square feet of space in 8,600 buildings in more than 2,200 communities nationwide.  However, those who seek to challenge this action may argue that it exceeds the authority of the president by putting unacheivable requirements on the Federal agencies, thus preventing them from carrying out their missions. 

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