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Lawmakers may require future state construction projects to utilize greener building materials

A unicorn was sighted at the Capitol Complex Wednesday – agreement between DFLers and Republicans, labor and management, and environmental activists and industry lobbyists on a bill pertaining to the climate crisis.

“Products and materials that are used for public projects, like infrastructure improvement, should be the cleanest and most sustainable available,” said Rep. Kaela Berg (DFL-Burnsville). She wants to cultivate the use of environmentally friendly concrete, steel, and asphalt when constructing bridges, buildings, and roads in Minnesota.

To that end, she sponsors HF2170 (dubbed the “Buy Clean and Buy Fair Minnesota Act”), which would initiate a process to achieve this far-reaching goal.

The House Sustainable Infrastructure Policy Committee approved the bill, as amended. It’s next stop is the House State and Local Government Finance and Policy Committee.

Materials used in two classes of projects would be covered by the bill: renovation or construction of a state building larger than 50,000 square feet; and construction or reconstruction of two or more lane miles of a trunk highway.

Berg’s bill aims to reduce the carbon footprint of construction materials utilized in these projects in a phased, incremental manner.

First, an environmental standards procurement task force would be established no later than Oct. 1, 2023. It would be led by the Department of Administration and include stakeholders in both the private and public sectors for the purpose of examining how vendors can best implement mandates around greener construction materials purchased by the state.

Specifically, the task force would focus on crafting environmental product declarations, which would contain “lifecycle assessments of the environmental impacts of manufacturing a specific product by a specific firm including the impacts of extracting and producing the raw materials and components that compose the product.”

A pilot program would be established by July 1, 2024, to gather information from state vendors needed to accurately determine EPDs for specific building materials. Once this information has been obtained by the task force, the EPDs would be used to establish a maximum acceptable global warming potential for specific materials such as greenhouse gas emissions. That standard would have to be developed for concrete and structural steel no later than Jan. 15, 2025, and for carbon steel rebar and asphalt paving mixtures no later than Jan. 15, 2027. Established standards would have to be subsequently reviewed every three years.

Many Minnesota manufacturers of these products are already transitioning to using greener materials. Berg wants to both accelerate that transition and support these domestic industries, noting American-made products are typically much cleaner than foreign building materials – a win-win for workers and the environment.

The bill would back these goals by including a waiver process and grant program. Manufacturers could apply for waivers to the bill’s mandates based on technical considerations or financial hardships, while the grants would be awarded to assist manufacturers in obtaining EPDs for their building materials.

Representatives of the United Steel Workers, the Sierra Club, and Holcim Inc. said their organizations support the bill.

Industry lobbyists testified that the bill also has their broad support, while offering some minor constructive criticism. Namely, they recommend that the resiliency of various timbers as a building material also be examined, and they would like to see the proposed task force look at factors above and beyond EPDs.

Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Mpls) marveled at the level of harmony on display in the hearing room.

“The coalitions that have come together around this, I think, really show the future of how we can come together on this set of issues.”

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