The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York has approved a settlement agreement between 15 states, consumer groups, environmental groups and the Department of Energy (DOE) that requires DOE to raise the energy efficiency standards on about 20 common domestic appliances and some industrial equipment. According to DOE’s estimates, the new standards covered by the agreement will reduce energy use by as much as 35 quadrillion Btus over a 30-year period.

The standards also have the potential to reduce greenhouse gases. Annual carbon dioxide emissions could be reduced by as much as 103 million metric tons a year, or the equivalent of eliminating emissions from more than 18 million cars and light trucks from America’s roads.

States filed a lawsuit against DOE last year for not meeting congressionally mandated deadlines for setting energy efficiency standards. The lawsuits charged that DOE was as much as 13 years late in meeting the deadlines to update efficiency standards for a wide range of products.

“Energy policies that do not emphasize conservation and efficiency are incomplete,” said Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell. “Pennsylvania is doing its part to encourage alternative energy development and reduce our dependence on foreign fuels. We are pleased the Department of Energy is stepping up to do the same. This is a tremendous victory for the environment, our economy and consumers.”

Pennsylvania Environmental Protection Secretary Kathleen A. McGinty said, “Improved standards for appliances that use large amounts of electricity, natural gas and oil mean immediate environmental improvements and additional cost savings for consumers — not to mention greater security at home.”

In the 1980s, Congress directed DOE to periodically update the efficiency standards for more than two dozen types of commercial and residential equipment, including furnaces, water heaters, industrial boilers and motors, clothes washers, home ranges and ovens, air conditioners and dishwashers. 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.

The department consistently failed in this regard. DOE has not adopted any appliance efficiency standards since January 2001.

In September 2005, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin filed a lawsuit in an effort to compel the DOE to catch up. The lawsuit sought a binding schedule for the overdue standards. Other parties to the lawsuit include the California Energy Commission, New York City, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Massachusetts Union of Public Housing Tenants and the Texas Ratepayers Organization to Save Energy.

“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.”

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