Inside Conservative Groups’ Effort to ‘Make Dishwashers Great Again’

Source: By Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times • Posted: Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Of all the conservative efforts to persuade the Trump administration to weaken the nation’s environmental rules, the dishwasher lobby might be the most peculiar.

“Dishwashers used to clean a full load of filthy dishes in under an hour. But now they take an average of two and a half hours and STILL leave dishes dirty!” reads one online petition promoted by FreedomWorks, a libertarian offshoot of a group co-founded by the late David H. Koch and his brother Charles Koch, who made their fortune in fossil fuels. The decline of American dishwashers, the site says, is “all thanks to crazy environmentalist rules.”

The petition, titled “Make Dishwashers Great Again,” is just one part of a broad campaign coordinated by conservative organizations with ties to fossil-fuel companies. Trump administration emails made public as part of a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club shed new light on the effort, designed to persuade the Trump administration to weaken standards on a long list of home appliances.

One such email, sent in June 2018 to supporters of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank, urged them to write to the Department of Energy supporting the creation of “a new class of ‘fast dishwashers’ that can complete a cycle in an hour or less.”

“This will require more electricity and more water and so D.O.E. will have to relax the efficiency standards,” the email said, adding that hundreds of comments had already been filed “with the help of FreedomWorks and several other groups.” (The D.O.E. is accepting comments for or against the move until Oct. 16.)

The weakening of dishwasher rules is just one of many cases where a Trump administration regulatory rollback is in fact opposed by the very industry the White House claims it will help.

“We appreciate the sentiment,” Jennifer Cleary, an executive at the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, wrote in a 2018 letter to administration officials. But weakening the standards would incur “additional costs for manufacturers and, ultimately, consumers.”

The administration is also preparing to loosen proposed Obama-era standards for tailpipe emissions on cars and light trucks, even though automakers say the move would cause them “untenable” instability and hurt their profits. It also plans to eliminate rules that restrict methane emissions from oil and gas infrastructure even though some companies have argued for continued regulation.

The Trump administration has already moved forward with numerous other efficiency rollbacks, including weakening energy standards for light bulbs, effectively freezing standards for gas-powered residential furnaces and making it tougher for the federal government to set new efficiency rules.

The administration has also tried to eliminate funding for Energy Star, a popular federal government program that lets companies put Energy Star labels on products that meet energy efficiency standards. It has moved to allow companies to more easily opt out of testing meant to ensure that their products comply with efficiency standards.

And last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee noted that the Energy Department had missed legal deadlines for more than 25 energy efficiency standards mandated by Congress for appliances like air-conditioners, refrigerators and washing machines, and directed the department to report back on its progress within 30 days.

In an interview, Daniel Simmons, assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy, defended the department’s actions.

“People’s time is a nonrenewable resource. People get frustrated when their appliances take longer, whether it’s dishwashers or washing machines,” he said. The department, he said, had received “an overwhelmingly positive response from consumers who were tired of waiting for their dishes to dry.”

“It’s not our job to meet industry’s wishes,” he added. “At the end of the day, we’re answerable to the American people and not any particular interest group.”

The rollbacks have significant environmental consequences. Eliminating inefficient bulbs alone would save electricity equivalent to the output of at least 25 large power plants, enough to power all homes in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, according to an estimate by the Natural Resources Defense Council. And tougher standards for furnaces alone could reduce carbon dioxide pollution by nearly 85 million metric tons by 2050, equivalent to the annual emissions from 22 coal-fired power plants.

Carbon dioxide is a powerful greenhouse gas that, when released into the atmosphere, is a major contributor to global warming.

Dishwasher makers themselves dispute that dishwasher performance has gotten worse because of environmental regulations and they say they aren’t looking for weaker standards. A study from Consumer Reports said this year that today’s dishwashers use roughly half the water and energy of 20 years ago. In fact, using a modern dishwasher tends to be more energy- and water-efficient than doing the dishes by hand.

“It’s confounding, it’s hard to explain, this blanket attack on regulations,” said Jason Hartke, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, a bipartisan nonprofit organization that represents businesses, environmental groups and consumer advocates. “I don’t think they’re listening to industry,” he said. “They’re trying to put out-of-date, inefficient products in American homes.”

Much of the support for these rollbacks has come instead from a small group of conservative, free market organizations, many allied with the fossil fuel industry. For example, a secretive policy group financed by corporations, the American Legislative Exchange Council, worked alongside the gasoline producer Marathon Petroleum to urge legislators to support weakening the clean-car rules.

The Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute, a group that disputes that climate change is a problem, has promoted the effort to roll back dishwasher regulations, filing a petition that directly prompted the dishwasher review. As a nonprofit organization, the Competitive Enterprise Institute isn’t required to disclose its donors, though a recent gala organized by the institute showed that the institute counts among its donors groups that have long been aligned with fossil fuel interests.

Sam Kazman, the group’s general counsel, said its policies “are based on our principles, not on what our supporters think about specific issues.” He added, “We wouldn’t be surprised if they support this initiative — especially if they do their own dishes.”

The FreedomWorks regulatory policy manager, Daniel Savickas, said the Competitive Enterprise Institute had flagged the dishwasher issue and the groups had decided to combine their efforts. “We try and roll back burdensome regulations and make life easier for consumers and manufacturers,” he said.

“The dishwasher in my apartment is absolute garbage, and I have to run cycles multiple times,” Mr. Savickas said.

The crux of their argument is that energy efficiency standards have made America’s dishwashers ineffective with ever-longer cycles, to the consternation of users. “Why should the government mandate these models rather than leave the choice to consumers in the first place?” Mr. Kazman said.

Dishwasher manufacturers say that’s not how they see it.

“Certainly, cycle times have changed over time, as you increase efficiency,” said Ms. Cleary of the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, which represents 150 manufacturers behind 95 percent of the household appliances shipped for sale within the United States, worth more than $30 billion a year. “But consumers still have so many options,” she said, including one-hour cycles.

In fact, 87 percent of dishwashers sold in 2017 included a quick cycle that can wash and dry the load in an hour, according to the manufacturers association.

The dishwasher debate takes a wonkish turn, devolving into dishwashers’ ability to clean “lightly-” and “normally-soiled” dishes. The Competitive Enterprise Institute contends that quick cycles clean only “lightly soiled” dishes.

A survey of 400 models by the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers showed that only about half indicated that “the recommended soil level for the quick cycle was ‘light.’”

“When consumers are using these shorter cycles, they appear to be satisfied with them,” Ms. Cleary said.