An Energy Star label is displayed on a brand new washing machine at a Best Buy store in Marin City, California. 
An Energy Star label is displayed on a brand new washing machine at a Best Buy store in Marin City, California.  - 
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Whirlpool Corporation is reportedly threatening to back out of the EnergyStar program unless Congress grants it— and other manufacturers— immunity from consumer lawsuits demanding compensation for EnergyStar products that don’t measure up. A voluntary program run by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, EnergyStar’s credibility took a hit four years ago, when the Government Accountability Office successfully scammed it into certifying bogus products.

The report was a doozy. GAO investigators submitted an application for a gasoline-powered alarm clock. It got listed. They submitted a “room air cleaner,” and linked to a picture of an electric space-heater with a feather duster attached. That got listed too.

“Really, EPA wasn’t looking at every application,” says Shanon Baker-Branstetter, an attorney with Consumers Union. “The manufacturers were self-certifying.”

EPA made changes, says Ann Bailey, who runs the EnergyStar products program for EPA. “Since then, we’ve dramatically improved the rigor of the certification process and we’ve instituted third-party certification.”

Manufacturers now submit their products to an EPA-approved lab, like Underwriters Laboratories, which signs off. The third-parties also pull a few products off the shelf every year to see if they measure up to the claims. That led to 62 products getting disqualified last year.

“I think EPA has done a good job addressing the concerns that GAO had,” says Steve Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

Nadel thinks the current standards are high enough that he supports the proposed legislation, which would protect companies like Whirlpool from some consumer lawsuits, in cases where EPA has done a review.

“I think consumers tend to trust EPA,” says Nadel. Sales figures collected by EPA seem to back him up. Even in the years after the GAO report, the number of EnergyStar products sold continued to increase.

CORRECTION: The original version of this story gave the incorrect name for the Government Accountability Office in a caption. The text has been corrected.

Follow Dan Weissmann at @danweissmann