When Sally Rand, a former EPA official, used to meet with industry executives to discuss an obscure, but incredibly potent and long-lived group of greenhouse gases, she knew how to get their attention.
“I call[ed] them ‘the immortals,’” Rand said. “It sort of resonated. It’s like, look, every time it goes up, it’s gonna be there for all the rest of time.”
Rand was talking about a class of fluorinated gases that remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years. The man-made chemicals—sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), tetrafluoromethane (CF4) and hexafluoroethane (C2F6)—are released by the aluminum, magnesium, semiconductor and electric power industries.
The gases, which remain largely unregulated, stay in the atmosphere for anywhere from 3,200 years in the case of SF6, to 50,000 years for CF4. Once they are released, they are “essentially permanent additions to the atmosphere,” the EPA notes.
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The collective emissions are small, about half of 1 percent of all greenhouse gases released each year. But because of their long atmospheric lifetimes, those emissions add up.
“One pound becomes two pounds, and two pounds becomes three pounds,” Rand said. “At least with CO2 and methane, you can say, ‘Well, the atmospheric lifetime is kind of within a time horizon that you can get your mind around,’ but these are just forever.”
Voluntary efforts to limit the emissions of these long-lived gases began in the mid to late ‘90s and enjoyed initial success. Emissions of each pollutant dropped by approximately 50 percent or more in the first decade.
But by 2016, three of the four industry partnerships covering the production of aluminum, magnesium and semiconductors were shut down as the agency’s priorities shifted elsewhere. The fourth, the SF6 Emission Reduction Partnership for Electric Power Systems, is still officially active, but the EPA issued its last annual report on the program in 2015.
“Resource priorities shifted, and it was because of success,” said Rand, who led the EPA’s industry partnerships focused on long-lived fluorinated gases. “When I left there just weren’t as many people working on these programs.”
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Rand, who retired in 2016, said many of the people who worked on F gases shifted to efforts to reduce methane emissions. “There’s just a lot out there to be done,” she said.
Now, Rand and other former EPA officials who oversaw these programs in the 1990s and early 2000s say it’s time to re-engage industry and redouble efforts to eliminate the remaining fluorinated gas emissions.
Stephen Andersen, director of research at the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development and a former EPA official who pioneered the agency’s industry partnerships, said the partnerships were abandoned early and that it was a “terrible mistake.”
In 2008, the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General released a highly critical assessment of the voluntary industry partnership programs. The report concluded they “have limited potential” and “if EPA wishes to reduce GHG emissions beyond this point, it needs to consider additional policy options.”
Three years later, in 2011, the agency required mandatory reporting of greenhouse gas emissions for all large polluters, but the agency never passed rules to require an actual reduction in the release of fluorinated chemicals.
One of the gases, SF6, which is used as an electrical insulator and current disruptor in high voltage electrical equipment, is 25,200 times more potent than carbon dioxide, making it the most potent greenhouse gas ever evaluated by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
In 2009, the EPA determined that all three chemicals—SF6, CF4 and C2F6—threatened “the public health and welfare of current and future generations” as part of a sweeping “endangerment finding” on greenhouse gases.
Thirteen years later, still none of the long-lived fluorinated gases flagged in the endangerment finding—SF6, CF4, and C2F6—are regulated by the agency.
By the EPA’s own accounting, the U.S. lags behind other developed countries in its efforts to reduce SF6 emissions. Europe and Japan have adopted SF6 emission reduction measures to the “greatest extent possible,” an EPA report from 2013 concluded, while the U.S. has “significant potential for reductions.”
Andersen, a champion of the voluntary programs, conceded that regulations also have their place.
“No environmental campaign can neglect regulation, if for no other reason but to sweep up the laggards and the freeloaders,” Andersen said. “If there’s some [companies] that just don’t want to bother, because they don’t care, and they can just keep doing it the old way, atmosphere be damned, you have to take care of that for equity, fairness and for the environment.”
Some electric utility companies have slashed their emissions—either voluntarily or through state regulations now in place in California and Massachusetts—and are beginning to transition to SF6-free equipment as it becomes available.
Others, like Duke Energy, continue to emit SF6 at a much higher rate. An investigation by Inside Climate News found Duke’s electric utilities in North and South Carolina had an emissions rate more than 5 times higher than its industry peers that are part of the EPA’s voluntary SF6 emissions reduction program. Duke released nearly 11 tons of SF6 from its electric utility operations in North and South Carolina in 2020. The emissions were equal to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of more than 59,000 automobiles.
Benjamin Sovacool, director of the Institute for Global Sustainability at Boston University, said a binding, international agreement like the Montreal Protocol, which phased out ozone-depleting chemicals starting in the 1990s and was recently expanded to phase down emissions of hydrofluorocarbons, potent greenhouse gases used in refrigerators and air conditioners, could also drive a global reduction in long-lived F gas emissions.
“The U.S. has been a pioneer in these types of phase-outs before,” Sovacool said. “It’s just we haven’t applied it here yet. I think it’s not a matter of we don’t know the policy. It’s entirely a matter of, we need the political will to implement the policy.”
Sovacool said the Montreal Protocol could serve as the backbone for emissions reductions, but the U.S. and other countries would need strong legislation that targets emissions reductions for individual pollutants.
An EPA spokesperson said the agency “continues to track facility-specific emissions” of fluorinated gases from the aluminum, magnesium and semiconductor industries. The spokesperson said EPA’s electric utility program remains active, holding internal calls and hosting periodic webinars, the most recent of which was in September 2020. The agency did not respond to questions about whether it was considering mandatory emissions reductions for long-lived fluorinated gases.
Rand said it’s time to refocus on efforts to reduce emissions of the gases. “There are technically feasible, cost-effective emission reduction opportunities that are available now,” Rand said. “They’re much too important to not address.”