NRDC Sues DOE Over Efficiency Standards Process Changes

NRDC sued the U.S. Department of Energy today for once again altering its energy efficiency standards-setting process to make it more difficult to set rigorous energy-saving levels for America’s appliances and equipment.  

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NRDC sued the U.S. Department of Energy today for once again altering its energy efficiency standards-setting process to make it more difficult to set rigorous energy-saving levels for America’s appliances and equipment. We believe this change will harm consumers—especially low-income households—and create more climate-harming pollution.


At issue is how the Department of Energy (DOE) determines whether a new energy efficiency standard is “economically justified”—meaning that its benefits, such as consumer savings from lower utility bills, exceed its costs. DOE is looking for ways to set weaker standards, or no standards at all.

This may sound like a boring technical procedural issue, but it is part of an ongoing pattern to weaken a critically important program. And it’s illegal.  Without strong efficiency standards, customers can’t be sure the appliances they buy are not wasting energy, which can substantially increase their energy bills. This particularly harms low-income Americans who already pay a larger percentage of their income on energy.

NRDC was joined by three other environmental groups in this suit, which is closely related to an ongoing lawsuit regarding DOE’s “Process Rule.” In that first suit, environmental groups and several states filed in the same court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, challenging a rule which was finalized in January. DOE made the economic justification change in August.

Together, these changes represent yet more attacks on the nation’s highly successful energy efficiency standards program that has been saving U.S. households, on average, $500 every year and will deliver $2 trillion in savings to consumers and businesses by 2030. 

DOE’s own calculations show existing common-sense energy-saving standards for appliances and equipment like refrigerators, water heaters, and air conditioners will have helped avoid a total of 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide pollution by 2030, equivalent to the annual emissions from 631 million cars. Increased efficiency can reduce the amount of power generated from fossil fuels – and the associated pollution.

By law, DOE must first identify the maximum improvement in energy efficiency that is technologically feasible. If a standard at that level would not be economically justified, DOE must set it at the next highest level that is both technologically feasible and economically justified. DOE in August changed that approach to compare the cost justification of all potential standards. NRDC expects the change will lead to the adoption of fewer and less stringent energy conservation standards.

NRDC’s other Process Rule suit argues that DOE has set an arbitrary baseline for “significant savings” to establish a new standard. About 40 percent of the standards on the books could not meet it, which means consumers and businesses would have paid several billion dollars more on their utility bills. The new Process Rule also adds unnecessary steps to an already-complex standards development process that will further extend the time to set new standards and the savings they deliver, and establishes a new testing protocol slanted in favor of industry, similar to letting students write their own exams.  

Joining NRDC in both lawsuits are Earthjustice (representing the Sierra Club); the U.S. Public Interest Research Group; and Environment America. NRDC is also joined by the Consumer Federation of America and the Massachusetts Union of Public Housing Tenants in the first lawsuit. In addition, a group of 13 states—California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington—plus the city of New York and the District of Columbia, previously filed a lawsuit challenging aspects of the Process Rule in the same court.

This is the 130th lawsuit that NRDC has filed against Trump administration rollbacks and efforts to undermine environmental safeguards. Of the 81 cases resolved thus far, NRDC has prevailed in 73 of them. Today’s second lawsuit related to the Process Rule also marks the fourth time in 11 months that NRDC and other environmental and consumer groups have sued DOE over energy efficiency standards.

In February, NRDC and others sued over DOE’s “final determination” not to go forward with improved efficiency standards on Jan. 1, 2020, for the light bulbs that fill roughly 6 billion U.S. sockets. The groups last November opposed DOE’s illegal reversal of a rule expanding the types of bulbs required to become more efficient.  

Meanwhile, DOE has repeatedly failed to meet its statutory requirements to update standards for appliances and equipment, having now missed 26 deadlines—the most of any administration. NRDC and others formally warned DOE in August that they will sue if the agency does not act.

For additional information on the earlier Process Rule changes, see this background blog by NRDC senior energy policy advocate Lauren Urbanek.

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