A federal appeals court has ruled that the Bush administration acted illegally in 2002 when it issued energy efficiency standards for central air conditioners that were weaker than those developed by the Clinton administration. In a Jan. 13 decision in Natural Resources Defense Council v. Abraham, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said that the Energy Policy and Conservation Act bars the Dept. of Energy from easing efficiency benchmarks for certain home appliances.


On Jan. 22, 2001, the Dept. of Energy published a standard developed by the Clinton administration that set a seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) of 13 for central air conditioners, up from a SEER of 9.7 or 10 (depending on the type of system) mandated by Congress in 1987.

Eleven days later, Andrew Card, White House Chief of Staff for newly inaugurated President Bush, issued a memo asking federal agencies to delay for 60 days the effective dates of rules that had been published but that hadn't yet taken effect. DOE then delayed the air conditioner rule's effective date.

Then, the Air-Conditioning & Refrigeration Institute petitioned DOE to issue a new rule setting the SEER at 12 for air conditioners. In May 2002, DOE published a revised standard, with a SEER of 12.

But in its decision, the appellate court said that DOE's action violated the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, saying that "Congress...intended to prevent DOE from amending efficiency standards downward once they have been published by DOE as final rules...."

David Goldstein, co-director of plaintiff NRDC's energy program, said, "This is a big victory for clean air and common sense."

A DOE spokesperson said the decision was "unfortunate and we are disappointed that our efforts to increase the efficiency standards of air conditioners by 20% was overturned by the court....We are currently reviewing the court's opinion."

Other plaintiffs in the case included attorneys general from seven states.