State Joins Challenge to Bush on Air-Conditioner Standards

TIMES STAFF WRITER

California and two other states joined environmentalists Tuesday in suing the Bush administration over its decision to weaken efficiency standards for home air conditioners.

The lawsuit caps weeks of criticism heaped on the administration after it rolled back a rule requiring manufacturers to increase the efficiency of air conditioners 30% by 2006.

That rule was adopted by President Clinton during his final days in office and after years of research and debate. California and other states--including Texas--endorsed it as a way to substantially cut energy use and improve air quality.

But after reviewing the rule at the industry's behest, Bush administration officials in April sliced the mandated increase to 20%. The higher standard, they said, would have made home coolers too expensive, especially for the poor.

Conservationists and consumer groups blasted the policy change, calling it shortsighted at a time when California and other states are enduring an energy crunch.

In California, residential air-conditioning accounts for about 15% of the peak energy demand. Weakening efficiency standards, critics say, will require as many as 60 new power plants nationwide, four in California.

"This is a time when we need to conserve electricity and reduce our dependence on the large energy generators and importers," state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer said in an interview. "Weakening this standard is precisely the wrong message at precisely the wrong time."

In their lawsuit, Lockyer and the attorneys general of New York and Connecticut allege that federal law bars the U.S. Department of Energy from softening an appliance efficiency standard. A separate but similar suit was filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Consumer Federation of America and another nonprofit group.

Joe Davis, the Energy Department's deputy spokesman, said there would be no immediate comment on the suit, filed in federal court in Manhattan. He added, however, that "we believe all of the actions of our decision-making in the air conditioner standards are well within the law."

When Clinton's rule was issued in January, his outgoing energy secretary, Bill Richardson, said the payoff in power savings and cleaner air would be one of the administration's greatest environmental achievements.

But a trade association representing air conditioner manufacturers challenged the new rule, arguing that it would dramatically increase costs of the units--priced between $2,000 and $4,000--and thus discourage people from replacing old ones.

The Department of Energy sided with the industry group in April. Officials said Clinton's proposal would have added $335 to the price of a new air conditioner, while the lower, 20% standard would boost prices only about $213.

Others, however, say those figures do not take into account the economies of scale gained when manufacturers increase production of the more efficient units. When Congress passed the first efficiency standard for air conditioners in the late 1980s, "industry said the sky was falling, and that it would increase the cost of air conditioners by $700," said Andrew Delaski, executive director of the nonprofit Appliance Standards Awareness Project. In fact, he said, U.S. Department of Commerce data showed no price jump.

Dan Reicher, the assistant secretary of Energy under Clinton who oversaw development of the stricter standards, added that high-efficiency air conditioners "are not some exotic, untested technology."

"There are lots and lots of air conditioners already meeting the standards--between 5% and 10% of the units sold today," he said.

Although most manufacturers support the Bush rollback, the second largest maker of air conditioners--Houston-based Goodman Global Holding, which produces the Amana brand--opposes it, saying any higher upfront costs would be recovered by consumers in lower utility bills.

On Tuesday, the company's president, John Goodman, issued a statement supporting the lawsuit, saying the tougher standard would "give consumers an enormous cost saving, U.S. energy consumption will drop and our environment will benefit from reduced air pollutant emissions and greenhouse gases."

Times staff writer James Gerstenzang in Washington contributed to this story.

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