New EPA Rule Change Saves Industry Money but Exacts a Climate Cost

The reversal of an Obama-era regulation relaxes leak detection rules for climate super-pollutants.

Feb 28, 2020
Grocery store refrigerators. Credit: Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images

A new EPA rule relaxes the requirements on leak detection and maintenance Programs for Owners and operators of refrigeration equipment. Credit: Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images

For the latest Trump Administration rollback of Environmental Protection Agency rules, the math goes something like this: The change will save businesses and industries $24 million a year. Earth's atmosphere, on the other hand, will receive emissions of pollutants equivalent to at least 625,000 new cars being added to the road.

This week, EPA Administrator Andrew R. Wheeler signed a new rule that relaxes the requirements that owners and operators of refrigeration equipment have leak detection and maintenance programs for hydrofluorocarbons, a set of refrigerants often referred to as "climate super-pollutants."

The rule change—the latest reversal of an Obama-era regulation—was part of the administration's agenda to ease burdens on industry.

"We just think it's a baffling and wrong-headed move," said David Doniger, a senior strategic director with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which opposed the rollback. "Considering there are thousands of facilities subject to these rules, [$24 million] is pocket change savings."

 

The rule applies to a large segment of the nation's commercial sector, from agriculture and crop production to the manufacturing of food and beverage products, petrochemicals, plastics, electronics, medical equipment and even the operation of ice skating rinks.

The NRDC said the agency used old data to underestimate the additional greenhouse gas emissions that would result from the rule change. In fact, Doniger said, the rule change will release into the atmosphere pollutants equivalent to the carbon dioxide emissions of 1 million cars.

An EPA spokeswoman defended Wheeler's decision, saying that the agency determined that in 2016 it had exceeded its statutory authority by extending leak-detection and maintenance requirements to equipment using refrigerants like hydrofluorocarbons or HFCs. 

HFCs replaced earlier refrigerants that severely damaged Earth's protective ozone layer, and their use has been growing. In its new rule, the EPA echoed an industry assertion that the agency lacked the legal authority to retain the Obama-era requirements for HFCs.

One of the industry groups backing the Trump administration's rule change is the National Environmental Development Association's Clean Air Project, representing major companies such as Boeing, BP,  Procter & Gamble, Lilly and Koch Industries. The law firm representing the association did not respond to a request by InsideClimate News for comment. But in written comments to the EPA, a lawyer representing the association called the Obama-era rule "arbitrary" and "punitive."

HFCs are among a group of chemicals known as "short-lived climate pollutants," which don't last very long in the atmosphere compared to carbon dioxide, which in some cases can remain in circulation for thousands of years.

Once released into the atmosphere, however, HFCs remain for only about 15 to 30 years, and their impact on global warming can be hundreds to thousands of times greater than that of carbon dioxide, according to the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, a global partnership working to curb short-lived climate pollutants.

Fifteen states and Washington, D.C., tried to persuade the EPA to retain the Obama administration's leak detection and maintenance rules for HFCs. Led by Massachusetts and California, they argued that the Clean Air Act gave the EPA broad authority to stop leaks from ozone-depleting chemicals and their replacements.

"Stratospheric ozone depletion and climate change are among the most severe environmental threats faced by modern human civilization," the states argued. "The states strongly oppose any EPA action that unlawfully licenses industry to emit more ozone- and climate-damaging chemicals at the expense of human and environmental health and in contravention of the Clean Air Act and its core purposes."

Last year an amendment to the Montreal Protocol—the 1987 treaty that put in check ozone-depleting chemicals—went into force, requiring the phase-out of HFCs by 2030. Ninety-three countries and the European Union have signed the treaty, although the Trump administration has not yet sent it to the Senate for ratification.

Congress is also weighing bipartisan legislation to phase out HFCs. In November, Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.), and John Kennedy (R-La.) introduced the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act (AIM), a bill that would authorize a 15-year phasedown of HFCs and has 31 cosponsors, including both Republicans and Democrats. 

Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), has introduced a similar bill, with 21 co-sponsors, also including a mix of Republicans and Democrats.

Doniger said the strong bipartisan support to tackle HFCs is a sharp contrast to the EPA's decision to relax the rule on leak detection and maintenance in refrigeration.

One provision of the bill, he said, "makes clear EPA has the authority to require refrigerant leak management."

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