Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Repealing Progress Fail

From the Memphis Commercial Appeal...

Effort by Rep. Marsha Blackburn to preserve incandescent light bulbs falls short

WASHINGTON – Chris Dempsey, manager of the family-owned Stewart Hardware stores in Midtown and Bartlett, stocks both efficient compact fluorescent and inefficient incandescent light bulbs.

Although sales of the CFLs are increasing, “the majority of customers prefer the incandescent bulbs,” he said. “I don’t think anybody thinks it’s the end-of-the-world type of thing but, given the choice, they prefer the incandescent bulb.”

In Congress, to hear the debate over light bulb efficiency standards this week, you might think it is an end-of-the-world type of thing. U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., has been leading the effort to repeal higher standards signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2007.

The Obama Administration weighed in earlier this week saying the bill she sponsored, the Better Use of Light Bubs (BULB) Act, is “unnecessary” and would have “negative economic consequences.”

“It’s time for us to say it was bad policy. It was a bad idea and we need to get it off the books,” Blackburn said in a floor debate Monday evening. She said the stiffer standards are “a de facto ban on the incandescent light bulb.”

The House voted 233-193 this evening to repeal the higher standards but, under the suspension rules, it needed two-thirds to pass. The failure was a blow to the coal industry, electricity generators and opponents of greater regulation. It’s estimated the higher standards, due to take effect next year, would save the output of 30 large electrical power plants and the tons of air pollution they produce.

U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn., was one of 35 co-sponsors and voted for the measure, as did U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee, R-Miss. U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., voted against it.

Supporters of the 2007 standards note that the higher-efficiency bulbs mandated by the Energy Independence and Security Act not only would save energy but, despite higher up-front costs, also save consumers money over time because of their longer useful life.

Those who want to repeal the efficiency standards, like Blackburn, say consumers tell them they don’t like the new compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) and particularly don’t like their higher costs. More efficient incandescent bulbs are also available but are also more expensive than their inefficient counterparts.

“Why take the low end of the market off the market?” U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, asked during Monday’s debate. “If you’re Al Gore and you want to pay $10 for a light bulb, more power to you.”

Blackburn and others also note that most CFLs – Blackburn in her House floor speech Monday said “all” – are made in China, and that the last major General Electric plant making ordinary incandescent bulbs, in Winchester, Va., closed last September, taking 200 jobs.

Those bulbs, which the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington-based think tank, says waste 90 percent of the electricity they consume as heat, cannot meet the energy standards that go into effect in 2012.

But the NRDC notes that the 2007 increased efficiency standards have been embraced by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, the trade association for domestic light manufacturers, as well as the leading manufacturers themselves.

The NRDC points out that the standards have “jumpstarted domestic industry investment in research and development and production of more efficient lighting products.” It points to a factory in St. Marys, Pa., retooling to make more efficient incandescent bulbs, a new factory for CFLs opening in Ohio this year and “thousands of jobs” being created by companies such as Cree, Lighting Science Group and Phillips Lighting.

The NRDC also released a statement quoting Barry Edison Stone, the great-grandson of the inventor of the incandescent bulb, suggesting proponents of the repeal of the higher standards are “narrow-minded.”

Proponents of the higher efficiency standards say they will spur innovation while reducing electricity usage and the carbon dioxide and other pollutants associated with coal-burning power plants.

But Blackburn, in her speech, said the bulbs “don’t save any energy,” adding, “we also know they’re also dangerous because they’re filled with mercury.”

The NRDC acknowledges the CFLs require between two and five milligrams of mercury, but notes that a single older thermometer contained nearly 500 milligrams of mercury – equivalent to the amount in more than 100 CFL bulbs.

U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who is opposed to repealing the higher standards, noted that not only manufacturers but the Consumers Union, which produces Consumer Reports, as well as Johnson Controls, United Technologies and the Environmental Defense Fund all support retaining them.

Consumers Union also paid for a newspaper ad now circulating saying incandescent bulbs aren’t being banned, just “getting better,” noting than the new bulbs, that look just like the old ones, are between 28 and 33 percent more efficient. Spokesman Michele Schaefer noted that lighting is 10 percent to 15 percent of household electrical use and more efficient upgrades will ultimately save consumer billions of dollars in reduced utility bills.

As with many partisan debates, the light bulb debate is largely ideological, pitting the higher efficiency mandate against the free market and consumer choice. As Waxman put it, the higher standards are already “working as we intended,” moving industry to innovate.

But Barton insisted consumers should have the option to choose the cheaper, less efficient alternative.

“Let the people make their own choices,” he said. “Why in the world does the federal government have to tell people what kinds of lights to use in their home?”