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Texas aglow with effort to save the incandescent bulb

Irritated with federal regulation, Republicans hope a state law will get around a national mandate to replace old-fashioned bulbs with more efficient lamps.

July 09, 2011|By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times
  • Texas Republicans are fighting a federal mandate that old incandescent light bulbs be phased out for more efficient lamps like this flourescent model. They say it's another example of over-regulation.
Texas Republicans are fighting a federal mandate that old incandescent… (Justin Sullivan, Getty…)

Reporting from Washington — It doesn't have the ring of "Remember the Alamo," but a new battle cry has gone up in Texas: "Remember the incandescent bulb."

Texas has become the first state seeking to skirt a federal law that phases out old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs in favor of more efficient lamps — a move that has emerged as a shining example of Republicans' resolve to strike down what many view as excessive federal regulation.

Texas hopes to get around the law with a measure recently signed by Republican Gov. Rick Perry declaring that incandescent bulbs — if made and sold only in Texas — do not involve interstate commerce and therefore are not subject to federal regulation.

"I think that Texans as a whole are tired of the federal government trying to micromanage our lives," said George Lavender, a Republican state representative who sponsored the legislation.

Critics of the federal mandate hope the Texas action will spur Congress to repeal the light bulb rules or prompt other states to adopt similar laws. The Republican-controlled U.S. House on Monday is expected to take up a repeal measure sponsored by a Texas congressman. Efforts also are underway in Pennsylvania and South Carolina to follow Texas' lead.

The 2007 federal energy legislation phases out the old-style incandescent bulbs over three years, starting with 100-watt bulbs next Jan. 1. Supporters said that consumers will be able to buy a new kind of incandescent bulb that is more efficient and cost about $1 more. The latest model — shown off to lawmakers recently — surrounds the filament with a halogen capsule that uses fewer watts.

But that hasn't stopped attacks targeting an alternative to incandescents — the spiral-shaped compact fluorescent light.

"I just believe that we should be able to buy what we want," Lavender said of the Texas law. "I've had calls from people in every state, and even in foreign countries, saying how much they appreciate this bill."

"This is about more than just energy consumption, it is about personal freedom,'' said Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Texas.), who's leading the repeal effort in the House. He recently cheered his state's action, declaring on Fox News: "I do thank the Lord that I live in Texas."

Ironically, it was President George W. Bush, a former Texas governor, who signed the energy bill.

Supporters of the new rules, who say the fluorescent lights save money and reduce energy demand, don't understand the fuss.

The average U.S. household could save an estimated $85 per year under the rules, according to the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, a coalition of state, environmental and consumer groups and utility companies that promotes energy efficiency.

Texas and other opponents "say, 'Hey, I want to buy the most inefficient light bulb around. Why can't I?' " said Steve Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a Washington-based think tank. His answer: "We all pay for more power plants."

"This somehow has become the poster child for overreaching government when government has regulated efficiency of appliances for years," said Jane Harman said, a former Los Angeles area Democratic congresswoman who sponsored the light-bulb rules — with a Republican cosponsor.

The Texas law is unlikely to withstand a court challenge, said supporters of the new regulations, citing a far-reaching Supreme Court ruling in 2005 that upheld federal restrictions on home-grown marijuana in California. The court ruled that because marijuana moved in a national market, the federal government could regulate its use, even if it were grown and used only in California.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, in a letter to the Texas governor, said "the sale of inefficient bulbs in Texas … could lead to an interstate black market in light bulbs that do not meet federal energy efficiency standards."

Yet the federal light bulb rules — as opposed to new federal regulations over complex financial derivatives or the sweeping health care overhaul — have become a hot issue because they touch every household.

"It's something that everybody can relate to," said Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project.

Critics of the federal mandate have focused on the spiral fluorescent lights, which cost more, are made mainly in China, contain mercury and, they say, don't give off as much light as the old incandescents.

Rep. Ted Poe, a Republican from Texas, recently pulled one of the more efficient bulbs out of his pocket in the House and warned, "I'll be very careful not to drop it on the House floor because if I do, we'll have to evacuate the House floor," a mocking allusion to mercury. He then cheered his home state for protecting Texans from an "absurd abuse of federal power."

The Texas action contrasts sharply with California's effort to implement the federal law a year ahead of every other state, a step that the state Energy Commission has said would prevent the sale of more than 10 million less-efficient 100-watt bulbs this year.

Not everyone in Texas supports the state's new bulb law. The Texas League of Conservation Voters and other groups said the bill "tells the world that Texas is moving backward, embracing the outdated technologies of the 19th century.'

And for all the hoopla over the Texas law, there is virtually no chance in the near future that residents of Lone Star State will be able to buy a state-made incandescent, said David Power, deputy director of the Public Citizen office in Texas.

"We don't mine tungsten in Texas," Power said. "So there is no place where they can get a Texas-made filament" for bulbs.

richard.simon@latimes.com

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