Administration Rollback of Energy Standards Illegal: Air Conditioners Must Comply with 2001 Regulations

Big Win for NRDC, Attny. Gen. Spitzer, Nine Other States, Consumer Groups

NRDC: Court Rejects DOE 'Big Brother' Defense

NEW YORK (January 13, 2004) -- Administration and industry efforts to roll back air conditioner standards were themselves rolled back today when a federal court here ruled that Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham violated federal law by weakening efficiency rules made final during the Clinton administration. This is the first court decision to directly reverse a Bush administration rollback of a Clinton administration environmental rule. (Ruling by U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, 165k pdf)

The ruling was issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit here in New York following a suit filed in June 2001 by NRDC (the Natural Resources Defense Council). Co-petitioners include New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, nine other states, consumer groups, and state utility regulators.

"This is a big victory for clean air and common sense," said David Goldstein, Ph.D., co-director of NRDC's energy program and a recent recipient of a MacArthur "genius" award for his work on appliance efficiency standards. "The administration's plan to weaken air conditioner standards would have increased electricity needs on hot summer days when blackouts are most likely and air pollution is the worst."

"Under federal law, DOE can't decrease an efficiency standard," said NRDC senior attorney Katherine Kennedy. "So DOE tried to argue that by moving to a lower standard it was actually increasing efficiency. Fortunately, the Court rejected this `less is more' Big Brother defense."

"After an industry group convinced DOE to weaken the air conditioner standard, NRDC was joined by a broad and diverse coalition of states, consumer groups and utility regulators who came together to fight this rollback," added Kennedy. "New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer deserves special kudos for his leadership on this issue, which was crucial to winning the day in court."

"This victory for consumers will result in lower electric bills and cleaner air," said Mel Hall-Crawford, Special Projects Manager for the Consumer Federation of America, a national consumer advocacy organization with over 280 consumer group members. "This is a win-win for the environment and consumers."

"This is a tremendous win for low-income consumers, whose interests the Bush administration tried to use as a red-herring excuse to roll back these important efficiency standards," said Charles Harak of the National Consumer Law Center. "In fact, low-income consumers struggle so hard to pay their energy bills that they are the biggest winners from today's decision."


In a final rule issued in January, 2001, the prior administration increased the federally allowed minimum energy standard for home central air conditioners and heat pumps to a level knows as Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) 13, which was a 30 percent increase over the former federal standard of SEER 10.

However, the Bush administration delayed and then rolled back the standard to the lower level of SEER 12, which represented only a 20 percent increase over the prior standard.

The American Council for an Energy Efficiency Economy calculates that today's ruling, by reinstating the Clinton administration's SEER 13 air conditioner efficiency level instead of upholding the Bush administration's SEER 12 level will:

  • Reduce expected peak electric demand in the United States by 14,500 megawatts (MW) by 2020. That decrease will avoid the need to construct 48 average-sized (300 MW) fossil fuel power plants;

  • Decrease total annual electricity consumption by U.S. households from expected levels by 12.6 billion kilowatt hours by 2020, equivalent to the total annual power used by 1.2 million households;

  • Save U.S. consumers $21 billion more in cumulative energy bill savings over the period from 2006 to 2030; and

  • Avoid the emission of another 51 million metric tons of carbon (the equivalent of taking 34 million cars off the road for one year).

The federal Energy Policy and Conservation Act ("EPCA"), as originally enacted in 1975 and amended in 1978 and 1987, establishes minimum efficiency standards for common household appliances that use large amounts of electricity and requires DOE to review and increase these standards periodically. DOE must set the standard at the maximum level which is technologically feasible and economically justified. EPCA contains a unique provision prohibiting DOE from decreasing appliance efficiency standards.

Co-petitioners in NRDC's legal challenge included: the States of New York, California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada New Jersey, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont; Consumer Federation of America; Public Utility Law Project; National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners; Texas Ratepayers' Organization to Save Energy; and Massachusetts Union of Public Housing Tenants. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District, a California public utility, also submitted an amicus brief in support of NRDC's action. Separate petitions for review of DOE's actions were filed with the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in June 2001 and May 2002, and then consolidated. The case was argued on January 29, 2003.