In the latest of a series of actions by the Biden-Harris administration aimed at reducing the federal government’s carbon footprint, the US General Services Administration (GSA) has issued new national standards for the concrete and asphalt used in GSA building and paving projects.1 The standards apply to concrete and asphalt provided by GSA’s prime contractors, furthering efforts to prioritize carbon-reduction in federal contracting and to leverage the federal government’s purchasing power in support of the transition to a zero-carbon economy. GSA plans to use these standards for all GSA projects involving at least 10 cubic yards of concrete or asphalt, including GSA projects carried out under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.2

GSA’s standards are the first nationwide standards for these materials to apply in the United States and will affect two of the most widely used building materials. Annually, the United States produces over 500 million tons of concrete and over 420 million tons of asphalt. The standards require that contractors disclose the environmental impacts that result from the entire production lifecycle of the materials, including greenhouse gas emissions. These disclosures are to be made in environmental product declarations (EPDs) that third parties verify.

As for concrete, the standards require that it satisfy low-carbon benchmarks based on the “embodied carbon” in a set quantity of concrete, adjusted for concrete type (standard, high-early strength and lightweight). GSA will also require “environmentally preferable asphalt,” which is asphalt that uses at least two of the six techniques specifically set forth by GSA. These techniques are:

  • Greater than 20 percent recycled asphalt pavement (RAP) content (specifying percentage and whether in-place or central plant recycling is used)
  • Warm mix technology (reduced onsite mix temperature)
  • Non-pavement recycled content (e.g., roof shingles, rubber or plastic)
  • Bio-based or other alternative binders
  • Improved energy/carbon efficiency of manufacturing plants or equipment (e.g., using natural gas or electric for heating materials)
  • Other environmentally preferable features or techniques3

Contractors may request a waiver of the concrete and asphalt standards, but the waiver process requires outlining the circumstances that justify the waiver and including a strategy, if one exists, for minimizing carbon emissions to the extent feasible.

The GSA standards were issued following an earlier announcement from the agency requesting information from industry on the availability of low-carbon or environmentally “superior” materials with EPDs. GSA reports that over 80 percent of the concrete manufacturers responding to the request reported already producing low-carbon concrete, over 60 percent reported having developed a product-specific EPD and over 55 percent responded that low-carbon concrete is cost-competitive with conventional concrete. For asphalt, over 80 percent of responding manufacturers reported using recycled pavement, over 60 percent reported using warm-mix technology and over 50 percent said the environmentally superior asphalt was cost-competitive with conventional asphalt.

GSA pointed to the positive industry response as evidence that “combating climate change is also an opportunity to boost American innovation.” GSA reports that over 500 million tons of concrete and over 420 million tons of asphalt are produced in the U.S. annually. As the manager of over 8,800 federally owned or leased properties, GSA is a major player in this market. From 2009 to 2019, GSA carried out 487 construction projects with an impact on over 253 million gross square feet. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has given GSA additional responsibility, allocating $3.4 billion to the agency for modernization projects at entry points along the U.S. land border with Canada and Mexico, all of which will be covered by the new standards.

1 Mayer Brown has written extensively about the Biden administration’s executive actions on climate change, including offshore wind leases discussed in Mayer Brown’s March 28, 2022, Legal Update “US BOEM Announces North Carolina Offshore Wind Auction” and Mayer Brown’s March 8, 2022, Legal Update “US BOEM Announces Provisional Winners of Massive Offshore Wind Auction”; President Biden’s Clean Energy Executive Order discussed in Mayer Brown’s March 24, 2022, Legal Update “Buy Clean: Biden’s Executive Order on Catalyzing Clean Energy through Federal Procurement”; and the Securities and Exchange Commission’s recently proposed ESG disclosure rules discussed in Mayer Brown’s March 22, 2022, Legal Update “SEC Proposes Climate Change Disclosure Rules Applicable to Public Companies.”

2 Mayer Brown discussed the administration’s efforts to implement the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in the January 21, 2022, Legal Update, “Jolting the Grid: US DOE Begins Implementing Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill.”