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Federal court finds US DOE delayed acting on efficiency standards illegally

A federal court has ruled the U.S. Department of Energy illegally delayed acting on several energy conservation standards and directed the agency to publish the standards within 28 days.

Judge Vince Chhabria of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in a Feb. 15 order granted the petition of environmental organizations, states and some of their agencies to direct DOE to publish four efficiency standards for portable air conditioners, air compressors, commercial packaged boilers and uninterruptible power supplies such as backup batteries.

DOE posted the standards on its website in December 2016 under the Barack Obama administration so the public could review them for possible errors but has yet to publish them in the Federal Register, effectively preventing them from taking effect. Of the four standards, only one technical error was identified for the uninterruptible power supplies standard. DOE at the time estimated that over a 30-year period, the standards will result in 99 million metric tons of reduced carbon dioxide emissions and save consumers and businesses $8.4 billion, Chhabria noted.

The department argued it has discretion to decide when it publishes the standards and that it could only be sued for failing to comply with the regulations it adopted under the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, which is the law that gives DOE the authority to set energy standards for home appliances and industrial equipment.

But Judge Chhabria disagreed. "This court has jurisdiction to adjudicate whether the department breached its duty" under its own regulations to publish the four energy standards in the Federal Register, the judge noted. "The department has in fact breached that duty."

While DOE can indeed decide when to publish the rules, that authority is limited, the judge continued. He recalled that courts have held that a duty is discretionary if it is "a broad, open-ended statutory mandate," requires the agency to evaluate how to allocate its limited resources, conducted on a continuing basis, or involves the exercise of the agency's technical expertise or specialized knowledge.

DOE's obligation to submit energy standards to the Federal Register following the error correction period "is none of these things," the judge concluded. Natural Resources Defense Council v. Perry (3:17-cv-03404-VC)