updated 1/14/2004 9:58:24 AM ET 2004-01-14T14:58:24

Rebuked in federal court, the Bush administration on Wednesday was weighing whether to appeal a ruling that ordered it to restore Clinton-era energy efficiency standards that would make air conditioners use less energy and save consumers money on their electricity bills.

The court said Tuesday the Energy Department violated the intent of Congress when it rolled back the regulation that required a 30 percent increase in energy efficiency in all new home central air conditioners beginning in 2006.

The department had replaced the regulation with a more modest one that would require a 20 percent increase, arguing that to go further would make air conditioning units too expensive and even prevent poor people from buying air conditioners.

Environmentalists and energy efficiency experts rejected those claims. The Natural Resources Defense Council, consumer groups and attorneys general from 10 states filed a lawsuit to challenge the decision.

Court cites Congress
On Tuesday, the Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in New York ruled that the so-called SEER-13 standard issued by the Clinton administration was valid and could not legally be lowered, even though the standard had not yet gone into effect.

It was Congress’ intention to make it difficult to reverse course and roll back energy efficiency standards, the court said. As a result, the Energy Department was “prohibited from amending those standards downward,” the court said.

Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis said the agency was "disappointed that our efforts to increase the efficiency standards of air conditioners by 20 percent was overturned. We are currently reviewing the court’s opinion.” No decision has been made on an appeal, he said.

The ruling was praised by energy efficiency advocates, environmentalists and officials in the 10 states that had joined in the lawsuit.

“This is a vindication of good energy policy, good environmental policy” and shows that a new administration can’t ignore rules that already have been put in place, said New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, one of those who challenged the Bush standard.

Most air conditioner manufacturers have argued that if the government required all their units to meet the SEER-13 standard, costs would escalate to a point where consumers in northern states could not recoup the added expense from energy savings.

SEER, which stands for seasonal energy efficiency ratio, is a measurement of efficiency for appliances, including air conditioners.

Energy efficiency advocates have scoffed at the industry claims. They argue the cost of producing the more efficient air conditioners was being exaggerated by the manufacturers, and consumers would save substantially in electricity costs.

$1.1 billion in annual savings?
The Alliance to Save Energy, a private advocacy group, said the higher SEER-13 efficiency standard would cut consumer electricity bills by as much as $1.1 billion a year by 2020, when the more efficient units would be expected to be in wide use.

Charles Harak of the National Consumer Law Center called Tuesday’s ruling “a tremendous win for low-income consumers” because, he said, they are the people who “struggle so hard to pay their energy bills.”

Air conditioners account for two-thirds of electricity use during peak summer demand periods. Improved efficiency in these units is viewed as key to reducing electricity demand and easing the strain on the nation’s power grids during peak periods.

The more stringent standard will save 14,500 megawatts during peak summer demand periods, enough to replace 50 power plants, said Andrew DeLaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, a group advocating energy efficiency improvements.

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