Victory! Trump Administration Must Publish Delayed Energy Efficiency Standards

The court decision is a win for climate action, helping reduce carbon emissions by 98.9 million tons and save consumers and businesses $8.4 billion.

portable air conditioner

A new portable air conditioner loaded into a car in Seattle

Credit: Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times via AP

Dec. 4, 2019 UpdateNRDC’s legal team has received notification that the 4 standards have been sent to the Federal Register for publication, which will make them final almost three years after the Obama administration intended them to be.

Forcing the hand of a recalcitrant Trump administration, a federal appeals court today ordered the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to implement four energy efficiency standards it has illegally delayed for close to three years. 

Taken together, the standards, originally initiated under the Obama administration, will save nearly 100 million tons of carbon pollution over the next 30 years, equivalent to the emissions from powering 10.6 million homes annually. In addition, they will save consumers $8.4 billion in utility bill costs.

The unanimous ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco is a major victory and a rebuff to Trump administration’s deregulatory agenda. The appeals court upheld an earlier ruling that DOE had "a non-discretionary duty to publish the standards in the Federal Register, and its refusal to do so violated the rule." This is the latest in a string of legal losses for the Trump administration. NRDC has filed 93 cases, and of the 57 cases resolved thus far, we’ve scored 52 victories (including this one).  

NRDC, 12 states, and a coalition of advocacy groups launched legal challenges in June 2017 after the DOE failed to finalize standards for portable air conditioners; uninterruptible power supplies (the battery backup systems used to keep computers and other electronic devices running when the power goes out); air compressors (used in a wide range of equipment like industrial paint sprayers and the air machines that pump your tires at the gas station); and commercial packaged boilers (which heat one-fourth of the nation’s commercial space).

Completed during the last months of the Obama administration, the standards were due to take effect in March 2017, but Rick Perry’s DOE refused to publish them in the Federal Register and argued in court that it had no obligation to do so. NRDC was victorious in an initial lawsuit, after which DOE appealed the ruling. The case was reheard by a federal appeals court, and the standards have been on hold since then. Today’s ruling will require the DOE to publish the standards in short order. 

About Energy Efficiency Standards

The energy efficiency standards program was first signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1987. Ever since, the DOE has regularly created and updated efficiency standards for appliances and equipment, following a schedule set by Congress. While there have been delays in the past, the DOE was largely back on track and meeting its legal obligations by the end of the Obama administration.

Efficiency standards, which address the energy use of appliances and equipment found in every home and business, ranging from laptop chargers to rooftop air conditioners, have quietly saved Americans billions of dollars on energy bills over the past few decades and are projected to save $2 trillion by 2030.

Energy Department Delays

The energy efficiency standards at issue in the legal challenge were approved by the DOE in December 2016. The approvals were the culmination of years of DOE research, analyses, and public input, with involvement of top research scientists, utilities, manufacturers, and environmental groups. The DOE found that the four new standards would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 98.9 million tons over a 30-year period and save consumers and businesses $8.4 billion.

As required, the standards then underwent two procedural steps. First, they were subjected to a 45-day period for submission of correction requests. This error correction period started during the Obama administration but finished after President Trump took office. Once this period closed, the DOE was required to make any necessary corrections and submit these rules for publication in the Federal Register, the final step in the process that makes the rules legally enforceable. While only one minor error was identified, the Trump administration’s DOE failed to complete this final step for the four standards.

The Legal Battle

That is when the NRDC and Earthjustice–-representing the Sierra Club, the Consumer Federation of America, and Texas Ratepayers’ Organization to Save Energy–-filed suit. A separate lawsuit was filed by the attorneys general of 12 states (California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Washington), as well as New York City, Washington DC, and the California Energy Commission. They argued that states and jurisdictions have significant interests in reducing energy use and increasing energy efficiency, in protecting their populations and environments, and in enforcing the provisions of their laws designed to foster energy efficiency. 

In February 2018, U.S. Northern District of California Judge Vince Chhabria ruled in NRDC’s favor, stating that the DOE violated a regulation under the Energy Policy and Conservation Act when it failed to publish the finalized standards in the Federal Register. 

Chhabria ordered the DOE to publish the standards for the four products within 28 days of his ruling. But the DOE appealed the decision, and the court suspended the order while it considered the government’s arguments. Today’s ruling, once it becomes final, will lift the stay and require the agency to submit the standards to the Federal Register for publication in less than 30 days. This ensures that improved energy-savings products will soon be on the market, and consumers and businesses will reap the savings.

But the Standards Fight Continues

Unfortunately, the Trump administration has made essentially no forward progress on efficiency standards for dozens of other appliances and equipment since taking office. The DOE has  missed legal deadlines for review of at least 18 product standards and more than a dozen test procedures. 

Rather than working to move standards forward to achieve energy and carbon savings for consumers and businesses, the Trump administration has been doing everything it can to move backwards. From huge rollbacks to light bulb efficiency standards that will cost each household more than $100 per year (adding up to $14 billion in excess energy use) to wonky changes to the process DOE uses to set standards to putting in place a loophole that undermines the integrity of how appliances are tested, we’ve been playing a lot of defense—which makes today’s win that much sweeter for consumers and the environment. 

By holding the DOE to its legal obligations, residents and businesses will benefit from the energy and bill savings they’re entitled to. And never fear—NRDC will continue our work to defend commonsense standard and preserve the many benefits of energy efficiency.

Related Blogs