Group of House Republicans push pro-incandescent light bulb bill that would net billions for energy industry
Tuesday, March 01, 2011 at 1:57 pm
UK newspaper The Guardian this week picked up a story that’s been a source of exasperation for environmental advocates since it broke Monday. The news that the U.S. House had repealed a 2008 initiative replacing plastic and Styrofoam utensils and dishware in the Congress coffee shop was announced via Rep. John Boehner’s press secretary’s Twitter.
The Guardian story frames the decision as a “Those wacky Republicans have done it again!” narrative, casually mentioning toward the end of the article a similar House initiative to roll back a program scheduled to phase out the manufacture of energy-inefficient light bulbs. But it is that bit of legislation that may have much farther-reaching consequences than the type of silverware used in the Congressional coffee shop.
In January, a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives that is meant to repeal Title III, Subtitle B of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA). Title III, Subtitle B, a dense, painstaking subsection in a dense, painstaking law, creates regulations on the manufacture and sale of energy-inefficient bulbs.
Specifically, it requires a roughly 25-percent energy efficiency increase in standard-issue light bulbs, to be enforced in phases from 2012 to 2014. It also requires light bulb manufacturers to work toward achieving energy efficiency that is twice current levels by 2020. Because traditional incandescent bulbs are unable to achieve either such improvements, it has often been reported as a total phase-out of all incandescent bulbs across the country. The new bill, dubbed the Better Use of Light Bulbs Act, would abrogate the repeal.
Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), those familiar spiral bulbs, have been shown to have a shelf life ten times that of incandescents, with energy costs around a quarter of those found with the older bulbs. So why are the congressmen behind the bill so in favor of keeping the old, energy-inefficient incandescent bulbs?
Some supporters have said it’s an issue of consumer rights, that people who like the old bulbs should be able to keep buying them. Others have cited safety concerns, saying that the CFL bulbs pose an environmental risk due to the mercury they contain — though the EPA promotes a bulb recycling program, and the trace amounts of mercury contained in the CFL bulbs would in fact add less mercury to the ecosystem than incandescent bulbs do. Their reduced energy usage would slightly mitigate the amount of mercury that coal-burning power plants emit into the air.
Meanwhile, Rep. Thad McCotter (R-Mich.), one of the bill’s sponsors, in a display of what can only be called chutzpah, took something of a constructionist view of invention and called supporters of the new CFLs anti-innovation in an interview with G. Gordon Liddy. He cited the incandescent bulb, whose basic design has gone unchanged for over 100 years, as “one of the greatest innovations in American history.” Incidentally, the only American contribution to the incandescent bulb, a product of work by British, Scottish, German and Canadian scientists, was the development of better filaments by Edison Laboratory researchers and others; the CFL, on the other hand, was invented by American Ed Hammer of General Electric.
The real answer as to why the bill’s sponsors are itching to extend the shelf life of incandescent bulbs may not be so ideological. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that in one year, replacing just one 60-watt incandescent bulb with an equivalent CFL results in $7 in energy savings (Microsoft Excel file). Other Department of Energy figures (PDF) state that the average U.S. household has 45 light bulbs across 30 separate fixtures and that there are 116,900,000 households in the country. This means there are 5.26 billion light bulbs across the United States. At present, CFLs hover at a market share just under 30 percent. If that were to go up to 100 percent as a result of the EISA mandate, power companies would stand to lose almost $26 billion in revenue every single year.
Manufacturers like GE have little to lose by introducing and advocating CFLs, because they’re almost six times more expensive than traditional incandescents on average, meaning that over the long term, the decreased frequency with which consumers would have to buy them would be offset by the higher price — and in the short term, such companies would get a massive burst in revenue from Americans switching over. But the energy industry has billions to lose in the conversion — and it’s appealing to its friends in Congress to try to keep that from happening.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), who introduced the bill, has close ties to the energy industry. Before his election to office in 1984, he was a consultant for Atlantic Richfield Oil and Gas Co., and he has made many statements about his disbelief in climate change, including one in which he called wind “God’s way of balancing heat” and suggested that wind farms would disrupt the balance of heat on earth and lead to further global warming. He made headlines in June of last year after he personally apologized to BP CEO Tony Hayward for what he dubbed a government “shakedown” targeting the oil giant. The “shakedown” he referred to was the BP-underwritten $20 billion fund that President Obama announced would be used to settle claims from those affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Barton retracted his apology after facing an intense media backlash.
The Better Use of Light Bulbs Act has bounced around the House Energy and Commerce committee since its introduction. Barton is the chairman emeritus of that committee. On February 17, 28 senators introduced the bill in the Senate. It remains in committee in the Senate as well. While it certainly may not make it through the Democrat-controlled Senate and would almost certainly get a veto from President Obama if it does in fact make it to his desk, the bill could be a symbolic victory for House Republicans — considerably more so than plastic forks in the Capitol coffee shop.
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