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Unplugged: Stop Energy Hogs At The Border

In June of 1976, the country had not yet marked its bicentennial. Gerald Ford was still president, Wings’ “Silly Love Songs” was topping the charts, and the customs service had not yet been transferred to the Department of Homeland Security. Point is: June 1976 was a really long time ago. 

And yet, one thing that had happened is that customs had already blown a deadline imposed by Congress to pass rules ensuring that imported products comply with energy efficiency standards and labeling requirements.
In the intervening years, as manufacturing moved overseas and the standards and labeling programs grew to cover more types of products, evidence mounted that some foreign companies are shipping products that lack required labels and waste more energy than they’re legally allowed to. This undercuts domestic companies that play by the rules and results in higher energy bills for U.S. business and consumers, and more air pollution for everyone. While nobody knows the full extent of the problem, it affects products ranging from light bulbs to window-mounted air conditioner units to the motors in farm equipment.
On behalf of Public Citizen and along with our friends at NRDC, we threatened to sue customs over its failure to address the problem. In late March of this year, the agency issued a little-noticed proposal ostensibly aimed at doing so.
While any progress is better than the last 36 years of inaction, the proposal makes clear that customs still has little interest in doing its job. It states that imported products must comply with energy efficiency standards and labeling requirements, but doesn’t do anything to ensure that they will.
Though customs appears to disagree, we think it’s important to save energy and make sure that foreign manufacturers meet the same standards as domestic firms. So, along with a number of other consumer and environmental groups, we submitted comments calling on customs to come out with a final rule that accomplishes what was supposed to be done 36 years ago and providing examples of ways it might do this.
Those examples were not hard to come by. Canada requires importers of products covered by its energy efficiency standards to provide the basic model number of the products included in a shipment. That model number is then electronically checked against a database of products that have been certified to comply with Canadian energy efficiency standards. 
It’s not prying crates open with a crowbar and hooking up test equipment to spot-check compliance, but it’s better than nothing.
The U.S. Department of Energy has established a similar database of certified products for America. But even though U.S. Customs imposes similar certification requirements on importers of chemicals, horsemeat and certain types of cheeses, among other products, it wasn’t willing to make the effort to stop energy-wasting appliances from entering the country.
It shouldn’t be that hard to set up a system for appliances and commercial equipment that catches noncompliant products without burdening importers of compliant products. Unfortunately, customs’ proposal gets us only marginally closer to that goal than we have been since the days of the Ford Administration.