An Unusual Coalition of Environmental and Industry Groups Is Calling on the EPA to Quickly Phase Out Super-Polluting Refrigerants

The hydroflourocarbons, or HFCs, are potent greenhouse gases and easily replaced in air conditioners and refrigerators.

Air conditioning units on the side of a building. Credit: Jason Larkin/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

Air conditioning units on the side of a building. Credit: Jason Larkin/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

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A coalition of U.S. manufacturers and environmental organizations is calling on the federal government to quickly phase out the worst climate super-polluting chemicals currently used in air conditioners, refrigerators and other appliances, as well as in aerosols and foam insulation.

The five, closely related petitions filed with the agency on Tuesday mark an unusual case in which business and environmental interests have aligned to address climate change. Specifically,  the groups are calling on the EPA to ban the use of certain hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), chemical refrigerants used in air conditioning, refrigeration systems and other applications that contribute to climate change. 

“This is a pretty rare occurrence in environmental protection where everyone’s headed in the same direction and they want to get there fast,” said Stephen Anderson, director of research for the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, one of three environmental groups that submitted petitions. The petitions were filed in response to a recent law passed by Congress to address HFCs that encourages petitioning to give stakeholders a say in which areas they feel the EPA should focus on first.

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While some differences remain between the various groups on the timing and scope of emissions reductions, the petitions reflect strong agreement on the need for aggressive federal leadership on climate policy following what they saw as its absence during the Trump administration.

For industry, the desire to act quickly is driven by a need  for regulatory certainty.  Air conditioning and refrigeration manufacturers worked with the Obama administration to hash out a plan to phase out the use of high global warming potential HFCs, only to have that plan scuttled by a federal court in 2017, a ruling that the EPA under the Trump administration did not challenge.

The Obama era regulation and the current petitions seek to phase out HFCs that do the most climate damage. In most cases air conditioning and refrigeration manufacturers will seek to replace high warming potential HFCs with HFCs that have a lower climate impact. One exception is refrigerators where isobutane, a hydrocarbon, is already being used as a replacement

Following the 2017 ruling, nine states led by California passed their own regulations for the phase down of HFCs with high warming potentials.  

Industry officials say meeting a single, federal regulation is easier than complying with the laws of multiple states.  

In December, as part of a federal Covid stimulus bill, Congress passed the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act, industry-supported legislation that gives the EPA greater authority to regulate HFCs. The rule also established a long-term phase down schedule for the use of HFCs, including an 85 percent reduction in the volume of the chemicals by 2036. That reduction is in line with an international agreement to phase down HFCs known as the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol.  

Helen Walter-Terrinoni, vice president of regulatory affairs for the Air Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute, an industry group, said the petition submitted by her organization would give industry a clear path for future phase downs and would also exceed the greenhouse gas emissions reductions required under the federal regulation.

“The benefit to the environment is an additional half billion [metric] tons equivalent of CO2, and the benefit to the industry is that they have certainty and they know exactly what to do and when to do it,” Walter-Terrinoni said.

The cumulative emissions reductions Walter-Terrinoni says her group’s proposal would achieve would equal an average annual greenhouse gas emissions reduction of taking seven million cars off the road from now until 2036.  

Nine States Have Already Enacted Restrictions

While closely aligned, the five petitions submitted by the different industry and environmental organizations varied in ambition and scope. One petition led by the Natural Resources Defense Council calls for the EPA to reinstate the Obama era rules that required the phase out of HFCs from refrigerators, car air conditioners and other applications where alternatives with lower warming potential are available.

After a federal court partially vacated the EPA’s authority to require these phase outs in 2017, Colorado was one of the nine states that enacted their own similar regulation. The state’s department of Public Health & Environment is a co-author of the NRDC petition.

“We worked closely with them in establishing their rules and they wanted to see these rules being reinstated nationwide,” the NRDC’s Christina Theodoridi said of the Colorado officials.

Another petition led by the Environmental Investigation Agency and co-signed by NRDC calls for the EPA to go further, enacting stronger regulations modeled largely on those recently enacted by the state of California.

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“We think the EIA petition reflects the level of ambition that is proportionate with the Biden administration, which has talked about bringing the US climate leadership back,” said Avipsa Mahapatra, the EIA’s climate campaign lead. “We’re proposing ambitious domestic actions to not just have the basic minimum floor that we had before, but really raise both the floor and the ceiling” in terms of restricting use of  HFCs with high global warming potential. 

The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers submitted a similar petition that largely aligns with California’s timeline for phasing down those HFCs from window and portable air conditioners, but has some minor changes for the timing of the phase down for the use of the chemicals in dehumidifiers.

“Every product is different and when people recognize that, and deal with the dates that are needed product by product, we can get there,” said Kevin Messner, senior vice president of policy and government relations with the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers. “It shouldn’t be controversial.”