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Officials OK standards for cooling, heat systems

WASHINGTON -- The government agreed yesterday to require new central air conditioners and heat pumps to be 30 percent more efficient beginning in 2006.

The Energy Department said it would not challenge a January court ruling stopping it from replacing a Clinton administration rule with one requiring a less stringent standard.

"At this point all parties have had their say in court," and it was time to stop the litigation, Assistant Energy Secretary David Garman said in a statement.

Department officials said they would tell manufacturers that they would enforce the tougher standard, although they previously had tried to roll it back to 20 percent.

The 30 percent increase is expected to save consumers $3.4 billion in energy costs and avert the construction of 150 power plants in 2020, when the new units are expected to be in wide use, said the Alliance to Save Energy, an advocacy group.

It is "a great victory for consumers who have been whipsawed this year by winter heating bills and then record gasoline prices," said Kateri Callahan, alliance president. A federal court ruled that the Energy Department violated the law when it scrapped the Clinton administration rule and substituted one calling for a 20 percent increase in energy efficiency. The court said Congress made clear that once a standard is on the books it cannot be rolled back.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, consumer groups, and attorneys general from 10 states had filed a lawsuit challenging the Bush administration's 20 percent increase.

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