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Oct 23, 2019

Climate Fwd: Look for the Energy Star label

Also this week: Fossil fuels on trial

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Tyler Varsell; Shutterstock

By Susan Shain

You probably recognize it. A sticker on a fridge or a dishwasher: the Energy Star symbol. But what, exactly, does it mean?

Energy Star is an energy efficiency certification program run by the Environmental Protection Agency. To get that sticker, a product must pass independent testing by an E.P.A.-recognized lab.

Energy Star refrigerators today use approximately 50 percent less energy than average ones sold 15 years ago. Energy Star LED light bulbs use up to 90 percent less energy and may last 15 times longer than uncertified ones. The washing machines approved under the program use about 25 percent less energy and 33 percent less water than uncertified ones, on average.

The program goes far beyond appliances, light bulbs and electronics, also certifying everything from roofing panels and insulation to entire apartment buildings. All told, more than 60,000 products bear the Energy Star label, including a dizzying 872 refrigerators and 390 dishwashers. (If you find that total daunting, you can just peruse the year's most efficient products.)

You might assume Energy Star certification applies only to high-end goods, but Jennifer Thorne Amann, director of the buildings program at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a nonprofit advocacy group, said that's not necessarily the case. "As we've looked over the years," she said, "we've seen Energy Star products at price points all across the spectrum."

Even if an Energy Star product is more expensive than its uncertified counterpart, the E.P.A. says you'll recoup the cost difference through savings on your utility bills. To help defray the upfront cost of Energy Star products, you can also look for rebates from your utility provider.

What about the planet? Can Energy Star make a difference? Yes, said Ms. Amann, who called it "an extraordinarily effective program."

Ms. Amann underscored the fact that the benefits from energy efficiency go beyond the environment. "We can reduce carbon emissions and other pollution emissions, and save people money at the same time," she said.


A group of protestors outside of the New York City courthouse Justin Lane/EPA, via Shutterstock

It's been a busy week for Exxon Mobil: The company is under scrutiny in Washington and in New York.

In D.C., a congressional hearing on Wednesday focused on the fact that the fossil fuel industry knew about the threat of climate change for a long time, while quietly financing groups that spread climate denial and lobbying to forestall legislative action. The chairman of the House oversight subcommittee on civil rights and civil liberties opened the hearing with a blast, saying, "Oil companies like Exxon knew the scientific reality of climate change 40 years ago but waged a war of deception that cost us precious time in the fight to save our planet."


At the same time, in New York City the company is facing off with the state attorney general's office in a shareholder fraud lawsuit four years in the making that alleges Exxon told investors it was fully accounting for the risks of climate regulation to its business while in practice it was seriously underestimating that risk. The trial is not about climate change denial directly, but instead hinges on New York's Martin Act, which gives the state broad powers to protect shareholders from corporate fraud.

The trial started Tuesday and is expected to last three weeks.

In 2015 The New York Times broke the news that the New York Attorney General had launched a fraud investigation of Exxon Mobil. Our first article stated the investigation focused on "whether statements the company made to investors about climate risks as recently as this year were consistent with the company's own long-running scientific research."

On Tuesday in Manhattan, I was in the courtroom when the case finally came to trial in New York State Supreme Court with opening statements before the presiding judge, Barry Ostrager. Protesters outside chanted "Exxon Knew!" earlier in the day, but their fire was matched by Ted Wells Jr., a lawyer for the company, who suggested that discussion at a 2016 meeting among climate activists about portraying Exxon as "a corrupt institution" was part of a conspiracy to take down the company with a "vilification agenda" that he compared to Russia's interference in the 2016 election.


In the past few years, climate investigations and lawsuits and countersuits have sprawled. Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey pursued an investigation of her own; she is expected to file a lawsuit in coming days.

The company first filed a suit to derail investigations by New York and Massachusets. Exxon started with a judge in Texas who, after issuing some rulings favorable to the company, ultimately determined that he did not actually have jurisdiction over the case and instead transferred it to a judge in New York who has been decidedly less accepting of Exxon's arguments and dismissed the case. Exxon has appealed the New York judge's decision.

The stakes of this case, only the second climate change case to reach trial, are high: If Justice Ostrager finds that Exxon did mislead shareholders, the state has estimated costs to shareholders of as much as $1.6 billion. The company posted earnings of $20.8 billion in its most recent year.


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