WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court on Tuesday overturned a rule, announced early in the Bush administration, that would have weakened the Clinton administration's energy efficiency standard for home air conditioners.
The ruling was the latest blow to White House efforts to ease regulations that businesses consider too burdensome. Courts in recent months temporarily blocked a new rule that would exempt companies from installing modern air-pollution controls when modifying factories and power plants in ways that would increase emissions, and reinstated a Clinton administration ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
California was among a coalition of states, environmental organizations and consumer groups that went to court seeking to restore the stricter rules for home central air conditioners and heat pumps. In California, residential air conditioners account for about 17% of electricity consumption in peak periods.
In a 66-page decision, Judges James L. Oakes and Sonia Sotomayor of the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York invalidated the action taken by the Department of Energy in the first few months of the Bush administration. The judges -- one appointed by President Nixon and the other by President Clinton -- called the rollback a violation of an energy law passed by Congress in 1975, after the Arab oil embargo, and amended in 1987.
Under the law, the government cannot reduce an energy efficiency standard once it has been established, said Katherine Kennedy, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York, one of the groups that filed suit.
During his final days in office, Clinton established a standard mandating a 30% improvement in the energy efficiency of home air conditioners. In April 2001, the Bush administration announced its intention to weaken the standard to a 20% improvement.
The Bush administration contended that the tougher standard would make air conditioners more costly, putting them out of reach of low-income families and discouraging consumers from replacing less-efficient units.
Department of Energy spokesman Joe Davis expressed disappointment in the court ruling. There was no word from the administration about an appeal.
William G. Sutton, president of the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based trade association, said that his group was "disappointed that such an important decision affecting homeowners in all 50 states should be determined on process rather than on the impact of the regulation on millions of people.''
But Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Boston-based Appliance Standards Awareness Project, a coalition of state, environmental and consumer groups and utility companies that promotes energy efficiency, said the Northeast blackout last summer makes the higher standard "even more important.''
The ruling comes as the Republicans, who control both houses of Congress, have blocked efforts to include tougher air-conditioning rules in a sweeping energy bill that has cleared the House but has stalled in the Senate.
Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, a Washington-based bipartisan coalition of business, consumer and environmental leaders, said the higher efficiency standard would save consumers more than $1 billion by 2020 and would reduce the need to build as many as 48 power plants.
California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer hailed the court ruling as a boost in the effort to reduce consumers' energy bills and protect California from future power shortages.