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Incandescent bulbs dimming despite GOP efforts on Hill

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New light-bulb efficiency standards kicked in Sunday, despite a last-minute Republican move that prohibits the federal government from spending money on enforcement.

And while some Republicans have championed the anti-enforcement effort as a temporary death-sentence reprieve of the traditional incandescent bulb, others say the move largely is symbolic, as manufacturers long ago had planned to adhere to the new regulations by Jan. 1.

"This decision may have little practical consequence on which incandescent light bulbs are available in stores because, starting January 1, it will be illegal to produce or import the inefficient, wasteful bulbs in the United States," Sen. Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat and chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in mid-December.

The senator added that the five major light-bulb manufacturers already have switched to making and selling the more efficient bulbs.

Many consumer advocacy groups agree that handcuffing enforcement likely won't matter much.

"As a practical matter, we don't think there's going to be much of an impact," said Jack Gillis, a spokesman for the Consumer Federation of America, a association of about 280 nonprofit consumer groups. "It's not as if you need cops out there reading the [packaging] labels."

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which was signed into law by President Bush, mandates increased efficiency standards for common light bulbs, requiring them to use about 25 percent less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs during a phase-in period between 2012 and 2014.

The law doesn't ban incandescent light bulbs. Instead, manufacturers beginning in 2012 no longer will make the old 100-watt incandescent bulbs, replacing them with lower wattage bulbs that produce about the same amount of light. New 75-watt, 60-watt and 40-watt incandescent bulbs will be phased in later.

Stores will be allowed to continue selling their stock of old bulbs until they run out.

Democrats say the law is a major step to help lower the nation's energy costs. Republicans, meanwhile, have been eager to overturn many of the new regulations, saying consumers should be given the choice of buying older model bulbs if they wish.

Last month, as lawmakers hammered out a massive spending bill to keep the government funded through September, Republicans inserted an amendment that bars the Energy Department from spending money in fiscal year 2012 to enforce the new light-bulb regulations.

"When the American people gave Republicans control of the House in January [2011], one of the major issues involved was the Democratic ban on the 100-watt bulb," said Rep. Michael Burgess, Texas Republican, who has fought to preserve the incandescent bulb. "Republicans have fulfilled our promise to the American people by allowing them to continue to be able to choose what type of bulb they use at home. Consumers should drive the marketplace, not the government."

But the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), which represents more than 95 percent of the U.S. lighting-manufacturing industry and who opposed the amendment, says it's committed to following the new lighting standards by the Jan. 1. deadline.

"All the major manufacturers have said that, yes, they will comply with the law. They made the investments, and they are law-abiding companies," said Steven Nadel, executive director of the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

NEMA says it worries the funding ban may allow scofflaw manufacturers to escape penalties, "creating a competitive disadvantage for compliant manufacturers."

An Energy Department spokesman didn't respond directly to an inquiry regarding the impact of the enforcement-funding ban, but called the new standards a "common sense" approach that will save families and businesses billions of dollars on their utility bills.

Advocates of the new law say consumers still will have plenty of light-bulb choices, including the improved incandescent versions, energy-efficient fluorescent lights and light-emitting diode (LED) lamps.

The law also mandates new light-bulb labeling standards, which supporters say will do much to help wean the country away from its use of old-fashion incandescent light bulbs — a technology that has changed little in the past century.

"That will drive a lot of market behavior," Mr. Gillis said. "When you're standing at Home Depot, and you read the difference between the lights, it will be very clear which ones are going to be more efficient or cheaper to run."

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