DOE faces legal attack over 25 efficiency standards

Source: By Lesley Clark, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, August 11, 2020

More than a dozen states and a coalition of environmental and consumer groups filed legal action against the Department of Energy yesterday, accusing the Trump administration of failing to update energy efficiency standards for 25 products.

Led by New York Attorney General Letitia James (D), states including California and North Carolina took the first step toward suing the agency, aiming to force it to take immediate action to update the standards, which cover consumer, commercial and industrial products.

“DOE’s delay in strengthening national standards results in missed opportunities to conserve energy and avoid the economic and environmental costs of energy production and use,” says the notice of intent to sue, charging that DOE has missed multiple mandatory deadlines for updating the efficiency standards in violation of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act.

Environmental and consumer groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and Consumer Federation of America, also filed a notice of intent to sue yesterday, citing 26 products, including what it said were some of the largest energy users, such as air conditioners, water heaters, refrigerators and clothes dryers.

The groups estimate that updating just 15 of the standards would save U.S. consumers at least $22 billion annually on their utility bills and prevent almost 80 million metric tons of carbon pollution — equal to the annual tailpipe emissions from more than 17 million cars — by 2035.

If DOE does not move on the standards within 60 days, both coalitions said they intend to go to court to force the agency to act.

“The Trump administration’s playbook of delay and deception is robbing our communities of the cost-saving benefits of reduced energy consumption,” said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D). “As we face an unprecedented economic crisis, the last thing hardworking Americans need is the federal government unlawfully delaying standards that would lower their electricity bills.”

DOE did not respond to request for comment.

Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette last month pledged to congressional lawmakers that the department would complete as many updates as possible before the end of the year (Energywire, July 15).

His promise came as Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) complained that DOE has fallen “ridiculously far behind” on meeting legal deadlines to update efficiency standards for appliances.

Brouillette said DOE has published 18 notices on conservation standards and issued nine rules — “three times more than in 2018.”

He added, “We are beginning to make some real progress, and we will move as aggressively as we can.”

Brouillette at the hearing later said that it is important to balance energy savings with cost. “We agree with the energy efficiency goals,” he said. “But it doesn’t do us much good to save $2 on the electric bill if it’s going to cost us many thousands of dollars to buy the new appliance.”

Under the federal Energy Policy and Conservation Act, DOE must periodically ensure that standards are technologically possible and make economic sense.

A 3-decade record

The environmental groups announcing an intent to sue charged that DOE under Trump has failed to review more standards than any other administration in the history of the 33-year-old program.

Trump has continuously waged a rhetorical war on energy efficiency standards, invoking a preference for old-fashioned lightbulbs and complaining that it takes too many flushes to clear a toilet bowl.

His administration, which has unsuccessfully sought to slash spending for the DOE office that oversees the efficiency standards program, in December blocked the planned phaseout of less-efficient lightbulbs (Energywire, Dec. 23, 2019).

Trump hailed the lightbulb decision last week at an event in Ohio, complaining that the more energy-efficient bulbs make him look “orange.”

The department in January published the first new national energy efficiency standards since 2017, after prodding by a federal court that faulted the Trump administration for dragging its feet for nearly three years.

Those standards were finalized by the Obama administration but delayed under Trump.

The 25 products that DOE has not acted on include refrigerators and freezers, room air conditioners, residential and commercial clothes washers, clothes dryers, small electric motors, pool heaters, water heaters, fluorescent lamp ballasts, microwave ovens, electric motors, furnace fans, dishwashers, walk-in coolers and freezers, commercial refrigeration equipment and computer room air conditioners.

California’s Becerra charged the administration with wasting its time on looking to change the standards, rather than meeting its deadlines. He filed suit against the department in April, charging that its decision to modify the way it develops energy efficiency standards “poses an unreasonably high threshold for energy efficiency savings.”

The department in January announced a plan to update the way it develops the standards, saying the update to the “process rule” would improve the program (Energywire, Jan. 17).

“Clearer energy efficiency standards will provide certainty to manufacturers, allowing them to produce products that will save consumers money on a variety of appliances,” Brouillette said at the time.