Trump administration ignores legal mandates to update appliance efficiency standards

The Energy Department is "basically thumbing its nose at congressional deadlines."

The Department of Energy, under the leadership of Rick Perry, is delaying its congressionally mandated review of appliance energy efficiency standards. CREDIT: AP Photo/Keith Srakocic
The Department of Energy, under the leadership of Rick Perry, is delaying its congressionally mandated review of appliance energy efficiency standards. CREDIT: AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

The Obama administration made a concerted effort to keep up with legal requirements to update standards governing the efficiency of home appliances and commercial equipment. Over the past 30 years, these federal standards, with bipartisan approval in Washington, have produced major cuts in energy usage and reduced carbon dioxide emissions. Consumers also have saved money on their utility bills by using highly energy-efficient appliances.

The Trump administration, on the other hand, is ignoring legal mandates to update appliance efficiency standards. Over the first 11 months of Trump’s presidency, the Department of Energy (DOE), under the leadership of Secretary Rick Perry, has missed several deadlines for updating appliance efficiency standards and is expected to miss several more in 2018.

Energy efficiency standards for commercial water heaters, for example, were proposed in 2016. The legal deadline for a final rule was set for two years after the proposal, or May 2018. In the Trump administration’s fall regulatory agenda, released last Thursday, DOE revealed it does not plan to meet the legal deadline. In fact, DOE officials removed any final action time and labeled the rule as a “long-term action.”

Altogether, Trump’s Energy Department took 20 appliance standards that it had marked as “under review” in its spring regulatory agenda and moved them to a “long-term action” status. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) defines a long-term action as one in which no regulatory action is expected within the next 12 months.

The DOE is saying it doesn’t have a plan or intent to follow the law, according to Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project (ASAP). “I’ve never seen this before. They’re publishing a plan that flaunts the law,” he told ThinkProgress. “It’s a public plan basically thumbing its nose at congressional deadlines.”

DeLaski said he expects there will be litigation to force DOE officials to review the appliance standards. “When you have a program that delivers such large benefits for consumers and has the potential to provide even larger benefits, it’s hard to imagine that there won’t be litigation to enforce the legal deadlines in the law,” he said.

The George W. Bush administration also missed deadlines to review efficiency standards. But it always appeared the DOE under Bush was trying to complete its reviews of appliance standards, deLaski recalled. “They never said, ‘We’re just not going to work on things.’ They worked on things and they just took a long time,” he said.

A progress update on the administration’s regulatory rollback was contained in a semi-annual report, known as the Unified Regulatory Agenda, published by OMB last Thursday. Trump pledged to cut the Federal Regulatory code back down from more than 185,000 pages in 2017 to the 20,000 pages it was in 1960.

The standards have historically enjoyed strong bipartisan support and demonstrated clear results. “It’s a long tradition of bipartisan support because these are standards that save consumers money,” deLaski said. “Even if you don’t prioritize climate change or pollution reduction, these standards still make sense. They help to make our energy systems more resilient. The less energy we need for air-conditioners, the less likely we have power outages on hot summer days. You don’t need to think that the climate is in trouble to think that upgrading the efficiency of our appliances makes sense.”

Under law, DOE must review its appliance standards at least once every six years to determine whether a new standard can be implemented at a level that achieves the maximum improvement in energy efficiency that is technologically feasible and economically justified. One choice allowed by the law is to make a decision, after going through the review process, not to change the standards.

The Energy Department did not respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment by time of publication.

The average American family saved nearly $500 on utility bills in 2015 due to efficiency standards for appliances, lighting, and plumbing products. Average household savings, by state, ranged from 11 percent to 27 percent of total consumer utility bills, with a national average of 16 percent, according to a report released in February by ASAP and the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

President Barack Obama issued a memorandum for the Secretary of Energy in 2009 requesting DOE take all necessary steps to complete all outstanding efficiency standards as quickly as possible. “They did a very good job. They issued more than 50 standards in their eight years in office,” deLaski said of the Obama administration’s efforts on appliance standards.

Along with enforcing efficiency standards, the federal government runs Energy Star, a program that provides consumers with information on appliances’ energy efficiency. The Energy Star program costs about $50 million per year to administer, according to the Alliance to Save Energy, yet delivered $34 billion in savings to U.S. consumers and businesses in 2015 alone. Since 1992, American households and businesses saved $430 billion on utility bills.

The Trump administration proposed the elimination of the Energy Star program in its FY 2018 budget request. The U.S. House then passed an appropriations package that included about a 26 percent cut to the Energy Star program, which was created under President George H. W. Bush’s administration.

Reduced energy use cuts emissions that harm human health and the environment, including more than 7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide through 2030, ASAP said in a fact sheet. “Less power generated equals less emissions from power plants,” deLaski said.

CREDIT: Appliance Standards Awareness Project
CREDIT: Appliance Standards Awareness Project

Industry groups have lobbied to reduce the number of required standard updates on appliance, lighting, and equipment manufacturers. The National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), for example, opposes portions of the program to enforce efficiency standards for appliances. An association official told Congress last year that he “fears that a regulatory environment that appears to know no end” will hinder companies’ ability to remain competitive in the global marketplace.

DeLaski, however, believes DOE’s recent action (or lack thereof) creates an enormous amount of uncertainty for businesses. “They would rather have a predictable process rather than one that is unpredictable like this,” he said.