Congress Kumbaya on Energy Tested in Fight Over Efficiency

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The Republican Congress and President Barack Obama have accomplished something unusual: a deal on energy-efficiency legislation.

A scaled-down bill to boost efficient power use passed Congress with barely any debate, and Obama signed it Thursday.

But the bipartisan comity may be short lived as opponents take aim at a key piece of Obama’s climate plan. Makers of freezers, furnaces and, even, ceiling fans are joining with natural gas utilities and Republicans to try to stall regulations that would make appliances more efficient.

“We cannot support an efficiency standard that imposes higher costs, requires more energy and produces more emissions,” John Somerhalder, president of AGL Resources Inc., a natural gas distributor, said Thursday at a House hearing about a proposed furnace standard from the Energy Department.

The industry pushback shows how even the small steps in Obama’s bid to curb greenhouse gases have become controversial. Energy efficiency has long been the unassailable apple pie of energy issues, as using less energy means lower fuel bills for companies and consumers. And less natural gas or coal use means lower greenhouse-gas emissions, so environmental groups support efficiency as a low-cost climate solution.

‘Uniquely Positioned’

“Energy efficiency is uniquely positioned to draw bipartisan support,” said Elizabeth Noll, energy efficiency advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council. There’s a “vast bipartisan opportunity to do much more.”

Noll testified Thursday against efforts to roll back efficiency standards, calling them counterproductive. Lobbyists for companies such as Ingersoll-Rand Plc and Emerson Electric Co. argue Obama’s rush for mandates in his climate plan is creating standards they can’t meet. As a result, higher costs will mean that more older appliances will stay in use -- and energy consumption could rise, they say.

The Senate in late March passed a version of legislation from Senators Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, and Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican. That bill included provisions to help induce building owners to adopt more efficient heating or lighting, and reworked an Energy Department standard so water heaters could be used as a system of storage.

That final bill included only a few of nearly 30 items in a Shaheen-Portman measure from 2011, and lawmakers in both chambers spent Thursday discussing which other parts could be written into a comprehensive energy bill this year.

The House passed the bill this month.

Efficiency, Jobs

“The administration looks forward to continuing to work with the Congress on bipartisan legislation to support energy efficiency and boost U.S. competitiveness and job creation,” Kathleen Hogan, the top Energy Department official for efficiency, said at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing.

Still, many pieces of the legislation would stop the department from writing rules, and businesses took the opportunity Thursday to weigh-in against the standards. Among other steps, the measures would halt a proposal to boost furnace efficiency to more than 90 percent, from 80 percent.

Chris Peel, chief operating officer for furnace maker Rheem Manufacturing Co., told a House panel that most of the 80 percent furnaces are in the U.S. South, and replacing them with more efficient units wouldn’t be cost effective.

The Energy Department’s “lack of true collaboration has resulted in oversights, including errors involving economic assumptions and technical issues,” Peel said.

The legislation would also phase out a requirement that all new federal buildings be powered and heated by renewable resources by 2030.

“We are deeply concerned that other of the provisions in the draft bill actually will serve to impede or roll back progress we are making,” said Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, a group that represents companies that help companies cut energy use, such as Siemens AG and Dow Chemical Co.

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