U.S. DOE Heats Up New Energy Standards for Home Furnaces


Court grants Obama administration request to reconsider weak Bush-era standard


Raviya Ismail, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500, ext. 237 

In the latest signal that the Obama administration is reassessing weak Bush-era environmental rules, the U.S. Department of Energy was granted a request by a federal appeals court to reconsider weak efficiency standards for residential furnaces. This means Americans may soon have home heating furnaces that will require less fuel and save the nation billions.

In January 2008 Earthjustice filed suit on behalf of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), arguing that standards DOE had adopted were weak, leading to consumers spending billions of dollars and failing to reduce global warming emissions. The city of New York and the states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York also challenged those standards in a joint lawsuit. The state of New Jersey intervened in the case later in the process.

“We’re glad to see that the Obama administration recognizes the multi-pronged benefits of strong efficiency standards,” said Tim Ballo, Earthjustice attorney who argued the case in court. “A revised standard can save billions while preventing the emission of more than 100 million tons of carbon dioxide. This saves consumers money and curbs global warming pollution, a necessary and logical solution to the economic and environmental crisis.”

During the Bush administration, DOE set standards at 80 percent efficiency, a level already met by virtually all furnaces currently sold. Now, the Obama administration is committing to consider new standards of at least 90 percent. A furnace with 90 percent efficiency would save consumers about 11 percent off of their home heating bills.

A stronger standard for residential furnaces would save at least enough gas to heat four out of every five U.S. homes for one year, net about $11 billion in direct consumer savings and cut global warming pollution by the amount emitted by 25 million cars in a year.

“The Bush administration ignored the science and the law in establishing weak standards.” said Anjali Jaiswal, Senior Attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. “Residential furnaces are the home’s biggest users of natural gas. We’re encouraged that Secretary Chu is taking quick action to establish stronger efficiency standards for furnaces that will lower heating bills, reduce global warming pollution, reduce natural gas prices for everyone, and increase America’s energy security.”

“Secretary Chu’s decision to voluntarily reconsider the 2007 furnace standards is a huge step in the right direction for the Department of Energy,” said Steven Nadel, Executive Director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. “It helps show that the agency in charge of U.S. energy policy is serious about finding ways to use American energy resources as efficiently as possible.”

“During the campaign, President Obama committed to ‘make America the most energy-efficient country in the world.'” said Andrew deLaski, Executive Director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project. “Secretary Chu’s decision to re-do the weak Bush-era furnace standard is an excellent start. Since furnaces use more natural gas than any other appliance, stronger standards will deliver big benefits for consumers, the environment and the nation.”

“It’s great news for low-income consumers that DOE will reconsider the very weak furnace efficiency standard,” said Charles Harak, attorney with the National Consumer Law Center, a participant in the lawsuit. “Poorer families often rent, rather than own, and depend on strong federal standards to make sure their landlords provide furnaces that don’t waste energy, sending money up the chimney.”

The lawsuit was brought by the Attorneys General of the states of New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and California, the California Energy Commission and the City of New York and by the Natural Resources Defense Council, represented by their own attorneys and Earthjustice. National Consumer Law Center intervened in the case on behalf of its low-income clients, the Massachusetts Union of Public Housing Tenants (MUPHT) and Texas Ratepayers Organization to Save Energy (TexasROSE). 

The states and non-profit organizations sued DOE after the agency issued a weak standard in November 2007. In the court order issued April 22, the Obama administration commits to issuing a revised rule by no later than May 1, 2011. Earlier action is possible since much of the work done for the 2007 rule can be quickly updated for the new standard. In addition, President Obama committed in a February address to move as quickly as possible on new appliance standards.

The order issued enables the agency to reconsider all aspects of the earlier final rule, including the strength of the standards and the implementation date. The order specifically indicates the agency will consider regional standards. In new legislation enacted after the 2007 final rule was issued, Congress made clear that DOE can establish regional standards for furnaces.

According to DOE, very large energy, economic, and CO2 emission savings could have been achieved by setting a 90 percent national standard for gas furnaces or by applying a 90 percent standard to just the northern region of the country. DOE found that a national 90 percent standard would save 3.21 quadrillion Btus (“quads”) of energy over 24 years, or enough to heat four out of every five U.S. homes for one year and would net about $11 billion in consumer savings. The higher standard would cut global warming pollution by 141 million metric tons over 24 years — roughly the amount emitted by 25 million cars driven 12,000 miles each — in contrast to just 8 million tons of reduction from the Bush-era standard.

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