Energy Dept. Sends Mixed Messages on Conservation

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With natural gas prices soaring, the Bush administration is encouraging all Americans to conserve. The Department of Energy is working with private sector groups to promote energy efficiency. At the same time, it's also cutting funds for research on energy efficiency.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

The Bush administration has launched a campaign to persuade Americans to conserve energy. It comes complete with a Web site, booklets, public service announcements and a mascot, the Energy Hog. But critics say the department's own priorities are questionable when it comes to regulation and in funding research programs that encourage conservation. Here's NPR's Kathleen Schalch.

KATHLEEN SCHALCH reporting:

The Energy Department plans to send experts to 200 factories and, as Secretary Samuel Bodman explains, it's developed an Energy Saver's Guide for consumers.

Secretary SAMUEL BODMAN (Department of Energy): It covers everything from insulation and caulking to more efficient lighting to smarter use of our thermostats.

SCHALCH: Energy conservation advocates welcome all this, but they say the department's own actions on energy conservation have fallen short. For instance, one way to save energy is to set government standards requiring more energy-efficient appliances, according to Bill Prindle of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

Mr. BILL PRINDLE (American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy): The sad fact is that the only rule for energy-efficient appliances that the department put out since the administration came into office was to roll back the air conditioner standard.

SCHALCH: Dan Reicher, Energy undersecretary under the Clinton administration, says DOE has missed congressionally mandated deadlines for issuing more than 15 standards, sometimes by many years.

Mr. DAN REICHER (Former Undersecretary of Energy): And in fact, recently 15 states sued the federal Department of Energy to try to put this program back on track.

SCHALCH: One of the delayed standards was supposed to have made home furnaces more efficient. Another way to save energy is by tightening building codes. Harry Misuriello of the Alliance to Save Energy says the National Association of Home Builders and conservation groups recently clashed over a proposal to require more insulation in walls.

Mr. HARRY MISURIELLO (Alliance to Save Energy): I believe that in battles like this, the US Department of Energy should at least, at a minimum, remain neutral.

SCHALCH: Misuriello says instead the department seemed to side with the home builders. Critics point to funding decisions as well. They say since 2002, factoring in inflation, funding requests for research into energy-efficient technologies are down by a quarter. Energy efficiency advocates also question other cost-saving measures. Hugh Saussy commends the Energy secretary for wanting to reach out to businesses and homeowners and help them conserve, but, he says...

Mr. HUGH SAUSSY (Former Head, Northeast Regional Office): He's already got a network of offices that he can call on by picking up the phone to do exactly that.

SCHALCH: Saussy used to head the Northeast Regional Office of this network charged with promoting efficiency and renewable energy. Within the next year, the department plans to close down this and its five other regional offices. The Energy Department defends this and other decisions. Undersecretary David Garman says running regional extension offices is expensive.

Mr. DAVID GARMAN (Undersecretary of Energy): We're constantly working and striving to be more efficient. Any funds that we can reduce in administrative overhead means that there's actually more we can spend on weatherizing homes or funding alternative fuels infrastructure.

SCHALCH: Garman says cost-effectiveness was also behind the department's qualms over stricter building codes, and he says setting new energy efficiency standards is difficult and complicated.

Mr. GARMAN: We are looking at streamlining, making a much simpler, more efficient and faster methodology of promulgating these appliance standards.

SCHALCH: Garman says DOE is now making standards a top priority and plans to issue a number of new energy-saving standards in the weeks and months ahead. Kathleen Schalch, NPR News, Washington.

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