GOP House Members Make a Mockery of DOE’s Energy-Efficiency Rules
It seems that you can’t really talk about the environment, and the laws that govern it, without being assumed that the discussion and point of view are driven by politics. And in a presidential election year, just about every single utterance about Congress or the White House is considered political.
Before I get into the story of how three congressmen from the Republican party in recent months have introduced amendments in the House that have almost no chance of becoming law, I will state upfront that I fully expect this article to be seen as political.
So in my best efforts, I tried very hard to get the three House Republicans in question on the phone in the past week for their points of view. I called, I emailed. Not a single one was able to discuss his position, not so much as to even furnish a written statement.
So I talked to two experts in the field and pieced together statements that each congressman has given the media in recent months.
The story is about clean energy, U.S. Department of Energy regulations and the grandstanding-type amendments to those regulations that Congressman Mike Burgess of Texas, Congressman David Schweikert of Arizona and Congressman Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska recently introduced. These amendments cover three areas: federal energy-efficiency standards for lightbulbs, energy-efficiency rules for shower heads and energy-saving standards for battery chargers.
In each case, the congressman ridiculed, blocked or stymied a DOE regulation, delaying what had seemed settled and preventing the agency from carrying out its orders.
“There’s a big problem in Washington right now, one of the biggest ones out there,” says Joshua Freed, an energy expert at Third Way, a nonpartisan think-tank group in Washington, D.C., “and that’s the politicization of what is basically public health.” Says Freed, “Every poll out there seems to say that the public is more worried about the environment than ever, and basically it’s just become yet another political issue that’s getting argued about and delayed.”
Lightbulb Efficiency Standards
I wrote a piece about this in January, but here’s a quick recap. Under then-President George W. Bush, new DOE standards were written and approved for energy-efficient lightbulbs in 2007. These standards, which have been in effect since January 2012, require bulbs to be 25 to 30 percent more efficient. Naturally, these rules required lightbulb manufacturers like General Electric to innovate and introduce new bulbs.
According to various estimates, consumers are expected to save approximately $100 per year on their energy bills using these bulbs.
The Bush law also required that the old-fashioned 100-watt incandescent bulbs can no longer be sold, and by July 2013, their 75-watt brethren, too.
Last December, House GOP members tried to stop the DOE’s rules from taking effect, for what they then called “intrusions” into our freedom and liberty when it came to buying whatever bulbs we felt like buying. They succeeded in halting the funding for DOE to enforce the law in 2012.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Burgess threw in an amendment in early June, which passed on voice vote, meaning the DOE wouldn’t have the funding for enforcing the standards in 2013, either.
Here is what Burgess said after his amendment was introduced: “People are sick of the government treading where it just doesn’t belong … I’m smart enough to make my own decisions about the purchase of energy, and the government should not feel the need to do that for me.”
And here’s my favorite Burgess quote, as he paraphrased a famous line from Blazing Saddles: “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges. We’re the energy police.”
Kit Kennedy, counsel to the Air and Energy Program at the National Resource Defense Council, is befuddled by Burgess’ amendment.
“There’s a long history of bipartisan support for energy standards, and in this case, like many people have pointed out, all the lightbulb manufacturers are going along with the new standard,” Kennedy tells me. “In states like Ohio, because of the (new) standards, you have manufacturers investing in new types of lighting. There’s a whole industry where new jobs are being created, making the more efficient lightbulbs.”
So why is Burgess stalling the DOE? Because he knows that it sounds good to be against “big government” regulations right now, as a representative of the Republican party. In another interview, his main argument for the amendment is that he wants manufacturers that have warehouse stocks of the old lightbulbs to be able to sell them without running afoul of the DOE.
Water Efficiency Standards
Twenty years ago, Congress passed a measure limiting showerheads to 2.5 gallons of water per minute. So, of course, manufacturers began to comply with the law, helping save millions of gallons of water annually and doing their part in water conservation efforts. Recently, the DOE began to enforce the regulation against companies that weren’t complying. This led Representative Schweikert (see video) to bring an amendment to Congress to stop the DOE from enforcing the standard — that Congress passed 20 years ago.
“It’s getting very hard to discern the fictional concerns from the far right on the environment from the actual concerns,” Freed, of Third Way, says. “Things like this are political theater at its worst.”
Schweikert’s measure passed by voice vote in the House.
Energy-Saving Standards for Battery Chargers
The DOE proposed in March new energy-efficiency standards for battery chargers. These would regulate consumer goods like laptop computers, mobile phones and digital cameras.
According to Kennedy at the National Resource Defense Council, efficiency standards for battery chargers and external power supplies would reduce energy waste and have the potential to save consumers $1 billion annually.
Again, this seems pretty self-explanatory, right? Nope. Representative Fortenberry wanted an exception made when it came to golf cart battery chargers — a very specific exception. He claimed that these new restrictions would “force” manufacturers to shift production to lower-wage countries.
And wouldn’t you know? The nation’s only golf cart battery charger manufacturer, Lester Electrical, just happens to be in Fortenberry’s district.
Here was Fortenberry’s statement in the House when he proposed the amendment, which, of course, passed by voice vote:
“Madam Chairman, I recognize that reasonable regulations are necessary to protect human health and the environment; however, we must guard against costly rules that provide no meaningful benefit to the United States but instead encourage this shift of American jobs overseas to lower-wage countries where environmental standards are minimal. The proposed golf cart battery charger rule is clearly such a regulation.”
“If this is really a problem,” Kennedy says, “then that company [Lester Electrical] should go to the DOE about this, state its case and maybe get some agreement. But this rider process, where you do a voice vote at the 11th hour on an energy appropriations bill, is stopping the work that Congress has asked the DOE to do in the first place.”
Now, wanting to keep an open mind, maybe the new regulations would hurt Lester Electrical tremendously. But I asked Freed and Kennedy something that continues to puzzle: Why is it a “given” that new regulations force jobs overseas? Isn’t it possible for American companies to adapt and still keep Americans employed?”
“It’s not always true,” Freed says of the offshoring claim. “We have seen some of these regulations that force innovation and get companies to make things cheaper here. It spurs the creation of new jobs, new industries.”
Kennedy gave me a great example of innovation causing jobs to (gasp!) move back. A 200-employee lightbulb company called TCP, in Aurora, Ohio, has been a leader in CFT-twisting technology, which makes bulbs more energy efficient. The manufacturer doing so well that it will move jobs back from China and hire local Ohioans. (A spokesman for TCP declined to reveal details of its plan at this time.)
“The “jobs versus efficiency” argument is a myth,” Kennedy says. “And this grandstanding by congressmen, when in reality the industries are already starting to adhere, just creates uncertainty.”
I know much of this is political maneuvering by Burgess, Schweikert and Fortenberry. It just makes little sense when the industries they’re trying to “protect” are just fine with the new regulations.