The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Trump administration preparing to do away with Obama-era lightbulb rules, document says

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with Paulina Firozi


In the last days of President Barack Obama's administration, the Energy Department issued new rules attempting to make a wide swath of the lightbulbs illuminating U.S. homes and businesses more energy efficient. The move was cheered by environmentalists keen on the energy-saving potential but booed by conservatives who say it is not a bright idea to stop consumers from buying the lighting of their choice.

Now, the Trump administration appears to be ready to side with those incandescent die-hards, according to a document that was published on -- but then deleted from -- the Energy Department's website. 

The document, discovered and saved by the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, indicates the Energy Department is preparing to repeal Obama-era rules that broadened the number of lightbulbs that must meet strict energy efficiency standards set to take effect in 2020. 

“It’s certainly one of the biggest for energy efficiency standards, setting aside the clean-car standards,” said Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project. 

The notice said the Obama administration “misconstrued existing law” with its January 2017 rules. The Energy Department declined to comment on the document, which may have been inadvertently published last month on the department's website before it was ready to roll out the new policy. “The Department does not comment on ongoing rulemakings beyond what is publicly available in the Unified Agenda published twice a year,” spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes said.

In 2007, Congress passed into law new efficiency requirements for general lightbulbs, with strict requirements set to take effect in 2020. Bulbs with light-emitting diodes (known better as LEDs) and compact fluorescent lamps (known for their tubes with a twisty shape) can easily meet the 2020 standard of 45 lumens per watt, according to deLaski. But the traditional incandescent bulbs on the market cannot.

So manufacturers of those bulbs pushed back against what they called “midnight” rules by the Obama administration. They argued the previous leadership wanted to apply a standard Congress meant for regular lightbulbs — the ones with the traditional pear-like shape — to many unconventional breeds of bulbs.

“All consumers of lighting are familiar with the look of the standard general service light bulb that Congress had in mind,” the National Electrical Manufacturers Association wrote to Rick Perry in March 2017 shortly after he was confirmed as Trump's energy secretary. “These are specialty lamps, they are not standard lamps.”

Energy efficiency is a low-profile but important part of the Energy Department's portfolio. Like many other countries, the United States wastes a tremendous amount of energy — two-thirds, according to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory — produced by coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear and renewable energy sources. Standards set by the department for washing machines, refrigerators and all sorts of other consumer and industrial equipment attempt to capture more of that energy radiated away as heat rather than used for work.

But it is the lightbulb that is the “flagship” of the department's energy efficiency efforts, according to Dan Reicher, former head of the department's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy under President Bill Clinton. “When it's all said and done,” Reicher said, “the first thing people think about when they think about energy efficiency is the lightbulb.”

The newfangled lightbulbs in particular have been held up — figuratively and at times literally, as Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.) did once on the House floor — as an example of the federal government overreaching by forcing consumers to buy energy efficient products.

“The bill does one thing, Madame Speaker,” Poe said of the 2007 law a year after it was passed. “It controls the type of lightbulbs that all Americans must use.”

But groups like the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a nonprofit group that researches and promotes energy efficiency and that co-founded the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, counter that whatever freedom is lost is outweighed by the tremendous energy savings modern bulbs bring. According to the group, the energy savings lost if the last-minute Obama-era rules go away could power about 7 million homes for a year.

Chris Mooney contributed to this report.


— Trump administration gives nod to bipartisan parks bill: The Interior Department signaled its support of a bipartisan plan to rebuild the national parks. Department spokeswoman Heather Swift told the Washington Examiner that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was "very happy to see the House put forth a bipartisan bill" and that it "closely aligns" with the administration's proposal. The bill from Reps. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) would allocate money from energy development on public lands to pay for repairs to parkland roads and other infrastructure.

— Maryland calls for backup on Chesapeake Bay cleanup: Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is putting the full-court press on surrounding states to reduce the amount of trash and pollution entering the Chesapeake Bay, claiming they are not doing their fair share of clean up, The Post’s Erin Cox reports. At an annual meeting Tuesday of the Chesapeake Executive Council, which includes the governors of Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia and D.C.’s mayor, Hogan said “Maryland honestly has more to lose than any other state,” over the bay. But Cox writes that “leaders from other states pushed back against Hogan’s assertion that they should help clear the bay of debris.”


— California is burning, and what is now the largest fire on record in the state is growing. But fire crews were gaining ground on the Mendocino Complex Fire on Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times reports. Officials, however, won’t see any help from the extreme weather, as the National Weather Service warns of temperatures topping 100 degrees and persisting dry, hot and windy conditions, Bloomberg News reports.

The smoke from the fires is creating an “air pollution nightmare” in the region, Greg Porter reports for The Post. “In many areas Tuesday, the air quality reached Code Orange levels, translating to unhealthy conditions for sensitive groups such as young children, older adults and those with respiratory problems. But there were also sizable pockets of Code Red and even Code Purple conditions, meaning unhealthy to very unhealthy air for all populations,” Porter reports. And the upcoming weather and continuously raging fires suggests it may only get worse.

— Alabama beachgoers may have killed hundreds of protected birds: A bird biologist on Alabama's Dauphin Island found that beachgoers used 26 eggs from the nests of a bird called the least tern, which is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, to decorate a sand sculpture. Left out of their nests and baking in the sun, the eggs died. The activity scared away other adult least terns protecting their nests.

"Killing migratory birds results in a penalty of $15,000 and up to six months in jail, but new guidance from the Trump administration says that killing a migratory bird either accidentally or incidentally is not a crime," the New York Times reports. "This interpretation of the law would also absolve companies, not just individuals."

— Storm watch: Including Hurricane Hector, a nearly Category 5 storm that is swirling east of Hawaii and was Tuesday tracking in the other direction, there are four tropical storms now in the Pacific Ocean. Michael Lowry, former meteorologist and a strategic planner at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told The Post’s Angela Fritz that just 25 of 1,007 named storms in the eastern Pacific since 1949 have reached or surpassed Hector’s strength. Fritz reports Hector "is expected to slide just south of the island chain Wednesday and Thursday."


— The road ahead for Tesla: The company briefly suspended trading Tuesday afternoon after founder Elon Musk tweeted he was considering taking the company private. The remark from the electric automaker’s chief executive that he had “secured” funding “stunned investors,” The Post’s Drew Harwell reports

“Musk’s tweet was an exceedingly rare way to break potentially monumental news,” Harwell added. “Public companies often halt trading in their stock and file official releases before making similar statements so as to minimize market jolts and abide by guidance from the Securities and Exchange Commission. … In a letter to employees Tuesday afternoon, Musk said a final decision had not yet been made and that the proposal would ultimately need final approval from a shareholder vote.”

Meanwhile, bankers and private-equity investors are skeptical of Musk’s ability to achieve a buyout of the company, according to the Wall Street Journal, citing his tweet that signals a “special purpose fund” that would allow current shareholders to stay with Tesla. “A special-purpose vehicle that is accessible to all shareholders would be unprecedented, lawyers said,” per the report. “Tesla would effectively be creating a new public company and would need to file a registration statement with regulators…While there are precedents for founders, executives and other big investors rolling their stakes into leveraged buyouts, rarely if ever do individual investors have the opportunity do so."



  • The EPA holds a PFAS community engagement working session.

Coming Up

  • The United States Energy Association holds a presentation on using coal for value-added products on Thursday.
A Colorado Springs hailstorm killed at least two animals and injured 14 people when it swept through the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo on Aug. 6. (Video: The Washington Post)

— "Softball-sized hail:" A violent hailstorm at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs killed a Cape vulture, which The Post’s Alex Horton reports was brought to the United States to help preserve the long-dwindling species.