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Unplugged: Sunstein Likes Standards Blocked By His Office

Either he has finally seen the light, or he just has a lot of nerve.

In a Sunday New York Times editorial about the impact of Hurricane Sandy and steps the U.S. should take to address climate change, former White House “regulatory czar” Cass Sunstein argues, quite rightly, that cost-benefit analysis frequently justifies aggressive steps to combat climate change and other environmental harms.

He will get no argument on that here. But the examples he chose to illustrate his point—fuel efficiency standards for cars and appliances—ought to raise a few eyebrows.

Sunstein says:

Recent rules from the Department of Energy are requiring greater energy efficiency from appliances like refrigerators, washing machines and small motors. For these rules as well, the monetary benefits dwarf the costs, and they include large savings to consumers as well as pollution reductions. There is a lot more to achieve in the area of energy efficiency, especially as technologies advance and continue to transform the once-impossible into the eminently doable.

True, but it is strange, and infuriating, to hear about the wonderful benefits of efficiency standards from a man who may have done more than anyone else (sorry Rand Paul) over the last two years to slow their adoption.

Let’s take one of the specific standards Sunstein cites as an example. When the Department of Energy was reviewing the efficiency standards for refrigerators, representatives of manufacturers, environmentalists and consumers got together and all agreed on reachable standards that would save energy without reducing quality or increasing cost. DOE reviewed that agreement and determined that it was fair to all parties involved, including the American public.

But before the standards could become law, DOE had to send them to Sunstein’s Office of Management and Budget. OMB refused to approve the standards, forcing DOE to withdraw them for additional study. The process took eight months, delaying the effective date for the standards and the energy savings and pollution reductions that Sunstein now seems to recognize have real value.

As our President Trip Van Noppen wrote in February, far too many efficiency standards remain lost in a similar limbo. Half-a-dozen efficiency standards—for products like supermarket display cases, walk-in coolers and freezers, and the overhead lighting fixtures used at big-box stores—are still stuck at OMB, as are overdue efforts to reduce the energy use of federal buildings. Some of them have been there more than a year.

OMB’s ostensible role in the regulatory process is to help ensure that federal agencies act in concert with White House priorities. In practice, it is often a place where public health protections go to die, killed by powerful special interests (or economic ideologues who don’t recognize the limits of cost-benefit analysis) getting a final shot at influencing those priorities out of public view. This can happen even in the face of deadlines set by Congress or the courts. Now it turns out it can happen even when the boss believes “the monetary benefits dwarf the costs.”

This is real irony.

Take action by telling the White House to release standards that will save Americans in utility bills and energy consumption.

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