Court Overturns Bush
by H. Josef Hebert, Associated Press
WASHINGTON -- A federal appeals court on Tuesday ruled the Bush administration was wrong to scrap a Clinton-era efficiency standard for home air conditioners and impose a less stringent one.
The ruling was the second legal setback for the administration on an environmental issue in three weeks. Just before Christmas, another federal court put on hold a program to ease air pollution requirements on industrial and power plants.
The appliance standard issued by the Energy Department in May 2002 would have required manufacturers to increase the minimum energy efficiency of home central air conditioners by 20 percent, beginning in 2006.
It replaced a regulation calling for a 30 percent increase in efficiency that was issued by the department during the final weeks of the Clinton administration.
In its ruling Tuesday, the Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in New York ruled that the so-called SEER-13 standard issued by the Clinton administration was valid and could not legally be reduced, even though the standard had not yet gone into effect.
It was Congress' intention to make it difficult to reverse course and roll back energy efficiency standards, the court said. As a result the Energy Department was "prohibited from amending those standards downward," said the court.
The ruling, in a lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council and joined by 10 states and consumer groups, means that the more stringent standard will go into effect in 2006 unless the department grants the industry an extension.
"This is a vindication of good energy policy, good environmental policy" and shows that a new administration "can't simply ignore" rules that already have been put in place, said New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, one of those who challenged the Bush standard.
Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis said: "We're disappointed that our efforts to increase the efficiency standards of air conditioners by 20 percent was overturned. We are currently reviewing the court's opinion."
He said a decision on whether to file an appeal would be up to the Justice Department.
"What's in effect now is the 10 SEER standard," said Davis, referring to the efficiency requirement that has been in place for home central air conditioners since 1992.
SEER (seasonal energy efficiency ratio) is a measurement of efficiency for appliances, including air conditioners.
Most air conditioner manufacturers have argued that if the government required all of their units to meet the SEER-13 standard, it would drive up costs to a point where consumers in northern states could not recoup the added expense from energy savings.
Energy efficiency advocates have scoffed at those claims. They argue that the cost of producing the more efficient air conditioners was being exaggerated by the manufacturers and that consumers would save substantially in electricity costs.
The Alliance to Save Energy, a private advocacy group, said the higher SEER-13 efficiency standard will cut consumer electricity bills by as much as $1.1 billion a year by 2020, when the more efficient units would be expected to be in wide use.
Charles Harak of the National Consumer Law Center called Tuesday's ruling "a tremendous win for low-income consumers" because, he said, they are the people who "struggle so hard to pay their energy bills."
Air conditioners account for two-thirds of electricity use during peak demand periods in summer months. Improved efficiency in these units is viewed as key to reducing electricity demand and easing the strain on the nation's power grids during peak periods.
The more stringent standard will save 14,500 megawatts during peak summer demand periods, enough to replace 50 power plants, said Andrew DeLaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, a group advocating energy efficiency improvements.
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