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EPA will propose phasing down hydrocarbons, a set of climate super-pollutants, by 2036

  • Author: Juliet Eilperin, Dino Grandoni, The Washington Post
  • Updated: 3 days ago
  • Published 3 days ago

Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency nominee Michael Regan, testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. (Caroline Brehman/Pool via AP)

The Environmental Protection Agency will propose on Monday a rule aiming to sharply cut the use and production of a class of powerful greenhouse gases used widely in refrigeration and air conditioning. The proposal marks the first time President Biden’s administration has used the power of the federal government to mandate a cut in climate pollution.

Unlike many of the administration’s other climate initiatives, there’s broad bipartisan support for curbing hydrofluorocarbons, pollutants thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide at warming the planet. Congress agreed at the end of last year to slash the super-pollutants by 85 percent over the next 15 years as part of a broader omnibus bill.

Altogether, a global phase down of hydrofluorocarbons, also known as HFCs, is projected to avert up to 0.5 degree Celsius (0.9 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming by the end of the century.

Widely used in refrigeration as well as residential and commercial air conditioning and heat pumps, HFCs were developed as a substitute for chemicals that depleted the Earth’s protective ozone layer. But their heat-trapping properties have helped further fuel rising temperatures.

The new rule lays out a system for how the agency would provide allowances for the production and use of HFCs for 2022 and 2023, with those amounts shrinking in the years to come. Last month, EPA finalized a list of new refrigerant options that could be used a substitutes.

The EPA is also proposing to establish a new enforcement system that targets one of the most powerful chemicals in this class - HFC-23 - which often arises as a byproduct of making Teflon and other plastics. The proposal would institute tracking measures and require that suppliers put the chemicals in reusable cylinders that would make it harder to traffic illegally in HFCs.

The EPA confirmed that the rule will be proposed later Monday.

Avipsa Mahapatra, climate lead for the nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency, said in an interview that the proposed regulation anticipates many of the problems that might arise from cutting HFC use and production so sharply.

“It’s very forward looking,” said Mahapatra, whose group has conducted several undercover investigations focused on climate-damaging refrigerants. She added that the group is “thrilled” the new administration has acted so swiftly to target these pollutants. “They have not compromised on ambition in the interest of speed.”

The moves mark a sharp shift from the Trump administration, which rolled back Obama-era policies aimed at fulfilling America’s commitment to reduce HFCs under a 2016 international agreement, called the Kigali Amendment. Donald Trump never submitted the treaty for Senate ratification, and his deputies reversed a rule requiring companies to detect and repair leaks from any appliance or piece of equipment using more than 50 pounds of HFCs.

Biden officials are reviewing whether to revive the rule, and the president signed an executive order in January instructing Secretary of State Antony Blinken to submit the Kigali Amendment to the Senate for a vote.

In the meantime these heat-trapping gases’ emissions are risingby 4 million metric tons between 2018 and 2019 in the U.S., according to the EPA.

The EPA’s new rule is born out of a rare bipartisan deal in Congress in which Senate Republicans bucked Trump to join Democrats passing a law to tame the potent greenhouse gases. That compromise came after both business and green groups pushed Trump to support the Kigali Amendment, which the EPA rule closely mirrors.

David Doniger, senior strategic director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate and clean energy program, called the new EPA rule a “strong, fast start” in implementing “the most important climate law passed in a long time.”

The agency estimates its proposed rule would yield $284 billion in benefits from 2022 through 2050, while saving industry money in compliance costs. By the time it is fully implemented, the agency projects, it will prevent the equivalent of 187 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere, which roughly equal to the annual greenhouse gas emissions from one out of every seven vehicles registered in the United States.

U.S. manufacturers have developed a set of more climate-friendly refrigerants, and several major chemical companies lobbied for cuts in HFC use. A number of large supermarket chains - including Walmart and Whole Foods, which is owned Amazon - have pledged to phase out the chemicals in their operations. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post.

However, there is still widespread leakage of these climate super-pollutants in the commercial food sector. The industry estimates that every year supermarkets lose an average of 25 percent of their refrigerant charge. And in a recent EIA undercover investigation of grocery stores in D.C., Maryland and Virginia found that more than half the surveyed stores were emitting HFCs.

Commercial refrigeration, which includes grocery stores as well as restaurants and food processing, accounts for about 28 percent of all U.S. emissions of HFCs. Air conditioning for commercial buildings and homes represents between 40 and 60 percent of emissions, according to federal data.

The EPA proposal is just a first step in tackling the super-pollutants under the new law. Both the makers of cooling appliances and environmental organizations are petitioning the EPA to mandate less-polluting alternatives for many smaller air conditioning products, as well as ensure the federal government’s HFC regulations are consistent with those from California, which has acted on its own to curb the greenhouse gases.

Kristen Taddonio, senior climate and energy advisor for the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, praised the EPA’s move in an email but suggested it could go further. On Monday the group will file a petition with the agency to speed up approvals for low-carbon refrigerants and withdraw the Energy Star label from any appliances using climate super-pollutants.

“If EPA gets refrigerants right,” she said, “we can avoid accidentally cooking our planet with our cooling appliances.”

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