NRDC Challenges Trump DOE Rollback of Energy Efficiency Rule

NRDC sued the Department of Energy for suspending a rule preventing air conditioners from evading stricter efficiency requirements.
Credit: DOE

Update: We won! On February 22, 2019, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled that the Department of Energy's stay of energy efficiency test procedures for central air conditioners was unlawful. Learn more about the court's ruling here


NRDC filed suit this week against the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for unlawfully suspending parts of an energy efficiency rule that had prevented replacement central air conditioners from evading stricter energy-saving requirements. DOE’s action will mean higher utility bills for consumers and more pollution from power plants generating electricity to run these inefficient A/C units.

Our lawsuit, filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, argues that DOE’s stay is unlawful. The Administrative Procedure Act provision relied on by DOE as grounds to issue the stay does not allow an agency to suspend a rule that’s already in effect, as DOE did here. Moreover, DOE failed to give a sufficient explanation justifying the stay, as they are required to do.

DOE’s stay indefinitely halted two provisions of a January 2017 rule that updated the energy efficiency test procedures for central air conditioners and heat pumps. Those two provisions had closed a loophole that had allowed certain replacement air conditioners to avoid meeting stricter energy efficiency regulations. As we note in our lawsuit, one manufacturer, Johnson Controls International (JCI), has been using the loophole to sell replacement units without having to meet stricter efficiency requirements. DOE’s stay reopened that loophole to JCI and other manufacturers.

Back in 2016, DOE began enforcing a requirement that replacement air conditioners—the outdoor halves of typical split central air conditioners—meet energy efficiency standards. They were to do so according to a new, specific test procedure for replacements, a move widely supported by industry and efficiency advocates. At the time, the policy applied primarily to air conditioners using last-generation refrigerant R-22, which destroys stratospheric ozone and has been tightly regulated in the U.S. for years. In response to DOE’s imposition of the new test procedure, nearly all manufacturers of R-22 air conditioners ceased production; in most cases, the older R-22 products would have failed to meet newer energy efficiency standards.

Shortly thereafter, JCI introduced a unique product line that could be used either as an R-22 replacement unit or as a complete central air conditioning system. Each type has a separate test procedure, and JCI was required to rate the energy efficiency according to whichever use was predominant. JCI chose to certify by the easier path: as complete installations. But as DOE later found, these units are, in fact, “predominantly sold in scenarios in which the outdoor unit is replaced, and the indoor unit is not replaced”—in other words, replacement scenarios. 

The “Test Procedures for Central Air Conditioners and Heat Pumps” rule, published in early January 2017, clarified that any air conditioner that can be used as a replacement unit must be tested as a replacement unit. This update raised the bar for JCI’s products, as DOE had for many other R-22 air conditioners.

The Trump DOE had twice delayed the effective date of that Test Procedures Rule without notice or comment. In the meantime, JCI sued DOE over the Test Procedures Rule in the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, but progress on that case was suspended indefinitely while JCI and DOE pursued settlement out of court. Meanwhile, JCI sought—and DOE granted—an extension exempting their products from compliance with the Test Procedures Rule until January 2018. Now, in the challenged stay, DOE has suspended the relevant provisions indefinitely, re-opening the loophole to any manufacturer.

As we did when Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency and Bureau of Land Management suspended safeguards against methane gas leaks from oil and gas infrastructure, we are stepping in, this time represented by Democracy Forward, to prevent DOE’s rollback of energy efficiency requirements that protect consumers and the environment. We’re here to make sure this administration does not halt these important consumer, environmental, and public health protections without following the law.  

This post was co-authored with my colleague Alex Hillbrand.

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