“Here at Walmart, I want to announce a few more steps that we’re taking that are going to be good for job growth and good for our economy, and that we don’t have to wait for Congress to do.  They are going to be steps that generate more clean energy, waste less energy overall, and leave our kids and our grandkids with a cleaner, safer planet in the process.”

— President Obama, remarks on American energy, Mountain View, Calif., May 9, 2014

President Obama, frustrated by the gridlock in Congress, has said that in this “Year of Action” he will move on issues such as climate change without waiting for Congress. During a speech last week, he touted a number of such steps, including “waste less energy overall.”

As an example, he pointed to this: “The Department of Energy is putting a new efficiency standard — set of efficiency standards in place that could save businesses billions of dollars in energy costs and cut carbon pollution.”

Here’s how the administration’s fact sheet for the speech explained it: “Today, DOE is issuing two final energy efficiency conservation standards. One standard for electric motors, which are frequently used to power devices such as conveyor belts and escalators, another standard for walk-in coolers and freezers, such as those used to display milk in supermarkets.”

But were those really actions that did not have to wait for Congress? That’s not quite the whole story.

The Facts

The DOE’s explanation of regulations makes it clear that they were set in motion because of a law passed in 2007 — the Energy Independence and Security Act. The law passed with overwhelming support in the Congress and was signed into law by President George W. Bush on Dec. 19, 2007.

The first notice of a public hearing for the walk-in cooler and freezers was on Jan. 9, 2009, in the waning days of the Bush administration. The first notice of a public hearing on the electric motors regulation was on Sept. 28, 2010, almost two years into the Obama administration.

Gee, it’s now 2014. What happened in the meantime? After all, these regulations were required by an act of Congress, with statutory deadlines in 2012.

As The New York Times reported in 2013, the White House slow-walked development of the regulations in part because of political reasons:

The slowdown stems from a combination of factors, including high-level vacancies and election-year politics. Analysts and former administration officials said the White House, sensitive to Republican charges that it was threatening the economy by pushing out dozens of so-called job-killing regulations, reined in the process last year, leaving many major rules awaiting action for months beyond legal deadlines.

There was also some internal opposition to the rules:

Some administration officials are also concerned that regulations have the potential to do more harm than good. “If we make refrigerators lousy, that’s a big problem,” Cass R. Sunstein wrote in “Simpler: The Future of Government,” a book published this year about his time running the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, a small unit of the budget office responsible for reviewing regulations.

Indeed, the data shows that the walk-in cooler rule sat at OIRA for 23 months, from Sept. 23, 2011 until Aug. 29, 2013. (The electric motor rule was at OIRA for four months — but DOE submitted a proposed rule eights months after legal deadline.)

An executive order issued by President Bill Clinton in 1993, and reaffirmed by President Obama in 2011, states that OIRA can review individual proposed rules and final rules for up to 90 days, with a possible extension to 120 days.

While Obama now touts the savings that will result from implementing the regulations, advocates for the rules have been counting the cost of the delays. As of August, according to the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, the delays on the cooler regulation had cost consumers and businesses $1.5 billion in 2011 dollars. (We have not checked the source of this figure, but offer it to demonstrate the frustration of energy-efficiency activists.)

Indeed, it required a push by a coalition of 10 states and the city of New York before the Department of Energy committed to a timetable to finally complete these regulations by the Spring of 2014.

White House spokesman Matt Lehrich provided this response:

“President Obama has pledged to use the power of his pen and his phone to expand opportunity for all Americans, whether Congress passes new legislation or not. That’s exactly what he did last week when he announced commitments from more than 300 public and private sector partners along with executive actions to cut carbon pollution and create jobs by advancing solar power and energy efficiency. Since taking office in 2009, the Obama Administration has made energy efficiency a key priority, issuing the toughest fuel economy standards in history along with energy efficiency standards for more than 30 products that will save American consumers nearly $450 billion on their utility bills through 2030.”

The Pinocchio Test

Obama’s remarks might have left listeners with the impression that the Department of Energy is acting quickly to impose new efficiency rules, without waiting for Congress. But the reality is that these elements of the “Year of Action” came after years of inaction, at the behest of the White House. In this case, Congress mandated the rules — and the White House created the gridlock.

Two Pinocchios


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