Agency Settles Lawsuits Brought By NRDC, Consumer Groups, States

WASHINGTON (November 13, 2006) -- After years of inaction, the Department of Energy (DOE) has agreed to a strict timetable for establishing new energy efficiency standards for nearly two dozen commercial and residential appliances over the next five years.

The agreement resolves lawsuits filed in September 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and two low-income consumer organizations; the City of New York; and 15 states, led by New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. The suits charged that DOE was as much as 13 years late in meeting congressionally mandated deadlines to update energy efficiency standards for a wide range of products.

The consent decree was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and approved by U.S. District Court Judge John E. Sprizzo.

"This agreement is great news for our pocketbooks -- and for our health -- because efficiency performance standards are the most successful tool we have to cut energy costs and pollution," said NRDC attorney Katherine Kennedy. "There have been a lot of technological advances over the last decade, and it's high time that we incorporated them across the board."

Congress first enacted laws for tougher efficiency standards during the energy crisis of 1975, and in the 1980s directed DOE to periodically update them by specific deadlines. The laws cover roughly two dozen major types of commercial and residential equipment, including heating and air conditioning systems, water heaters, industrial boilers and motors, dishwashers, clothes dryers, and certain kinds of lighting. Under the law, DOE must set new standards at the maximum technologically feasible and cost-effective level possible. The agency cannot weaken already established standards.

"This is a historic opportunity. DOE and manufacturers should now join forces with states, power companies, citizens and energy experts to establish the strongest possible efficiency standards -- as required by law." said Kennedy. "NRDC will be watching to make sure the new standards maximize savings and protect consumers and the environment."

The standards that DOE will issue under this agreement could save enough energy each year to meet the needs of as many as 12 million American households, and avoid the need to build dozens of new electric power plants, according to NRDC. By DOE's own estimates, the standards have the potential to help combat global warming by slashing annual carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 103 million metric tons a year -- the equivalent of taking more than 18 million cars and light trucks off the nation's roads.

The agreement with DOE will especially benefit low-income consumers, said Charles Harak, staff attorney of the Boston-based National Consumer Law Center, which represented the two groups that joined NRDC in its 2005 lawsuit: the Massachusetts Union of Public Housing Tenants and the Texas Ratepayers' Organization to Save Energy.

"Low-income people too often have to choose between heating their apartments and buying food," Harak said. "The standards that will be issued under today's agreement will help relieve this burden by reducing their energy bills.

"We'll have to watchdog the rules to make sure they are strong enough," he added. "But we're finally moving forward after years of no progress."

During the four-year George H.W. Bush administration, DOE toughened efficiency standards for five types of appliances. During Clinton administration's eight years in office, the agency upgraded standards for 10 appliances. But in the nearly six years that the current administration has been in office, the DOE has not yet strengthened any appliance standards. In fact, it attempted to weaken standards for central air conditioners, which was rejected by a federal court in 2004 as a result of lawsuits brought by NRDC, New York Attorney General Spitzer and others.