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Chances Dimming on U.S. Light Bulb Switch

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Photo courtesy of Bes Z/Flickr, Creative Commons license

In its dealmaking on a $1 trillion budget to avoid a federal government shutdown, the U.S. Congress is poised to commit the nation to spending more on energy waste in the coming year.

In the fine print of the 1,200-page bill approved late Thursday in the House, lawmakers voted to prohibit the U.S. Department of Energy from spending any money to enforce the law set to go into effect January 1 to phase out inefficient light bulbs. The measure was headed toward approval this weekend in the Senate.

House Republicans have been railing against the bulb phase-out for months, although their efforts to garner enough votes for an outright repeal failed repeatedly. But in the closed-door horse-trading to forge a new spending plan before money runs out at midnight tonight, a deal was cut that effectively makes the phase-out toothless at least until the following budget year begins next October.

Phase-out of light bulbs that generate more heat than light would save U.S. consumers $12 billion dollars a year, would cut as much electricity use as shutting 30 power plants, and reduce pollution equivalent to taking 14 million cars off the road, according to the Alliance to Save Energy (ASE), a nonprofit coalition of businesses and environmentalists that work to promote greater efficiency.

ASE President Kateri Callahan said in a statement that the group was “chagrined that the Congress is seeking to keep America ‘in the dark ages’ of lighting even as the rest of the world …  marches forward toward better and more efficient lighting products.” According to a report by the International Energy Agency, almost every developed country in the world (pdf) and many developing countries are moving forward to phase out traditional incandescent light bulbs.

Although U.S. House Republicans derided efforts to “ban” the incandescent bulb, the law was written to be neutral to technology, instead establishing new standards on how much light a lamp must emit for the energy it consumes. Compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) are the most readily available replacements, but manufacturers have also developed advanced halogen light bulbs–a kind of incandescent lamp–that meets the new standards in the early years of the U.S. phase out. Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that seek to imitate incandescent lamps in light quality also are on the market, although still pricey.

The Democrat-controlled Senate must also pass the budget bill for it to take effect, but it is wrangling over so many issues, including a payroll tax break and extension of unemployment benefits, that it was not expected to undo a the light bulb deal struck by House colleagues.

But the Senate still will have to grapple with energy policy before finalizing a spending plan. Republicans are threatening to hold up the tax break and unemployment provisions unless the budget contains a provision forcing approval of the Keystone XL pipeline to send more oil from the Canada oil sands to Texas refineries.

Perhaps the energy-budget tradeoffs make a certain amount of sense. A nation that’s committed to wasting more energy certainly will need more fuel.