In nearly every supermarket in America, a network of pipes transports compressed refrigerants that keep perishable goods cold. Most of these chemicals are hydrofluorocarbons — greenhouse gases thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide — which often escape through cracks or systems that were not properly installed. Once they leak, they are destined to pollute the atmosphere.
The Biden administration now sees eliminating these chemicals from the nation’s refrigerators as low-hanging fruit in its broader effort to rein in climate pollutants. The Environmental Protection Agency issued a public call last week for companies to report production and import data on HFCs.
Under the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act, which passed in December, the EPA must phase down the production and import of these potent greenhouse gases 85 percent over the next 15 years.
“The environmental benefits here are very large, they’re very important,” said Cindy Newberg, who directs the stratospheric protection division in the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. The new law, she added, “provides explicit authority for us to do this work, and that’s incredibly important to the agency, and for all of us.”
A new undercover investigation by an advocacy group suggests that some supermarkets are leaking climate-damaging refrigerants at an even higher rate than regulators have assumed. The industry estimates that every year supermarkets lose an average of 25 percent of their refrigerant charge — chemicals introduced in the 1990s to replace ones depleting the Earth’s ozone layer.
Armed with high-tech sensors, undercover investigators for the Environmental Investigation Agency have documented widespread leakage of HFCs at grocery stores in D.C., Maryland and Virginia. While Walmart and other supermarket companies have pledged to curb their use of these chemicals, more than half of all the stores the EIA surveyed were emitting these climate-warming refrigerants.
Out of 45 supermarkets surveyed — including 20 Walmarts as well as stores operated by ALDI, Costco, Giant, Harris Teeter, Safeway, ShopRite, PriceRite, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods — investigators found leaks in 55 percent of them. (Whole Foods is owned by Amazon, whose founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.) The investigation did not determine the exact amount of HFCs released.
“This is a systemwide, industry-wide problem,” said Avipsa Mahapatra, climate lead for the EIA, the advocacy group. “In reality, they could easily check for this.”
None of the companies contacted for this story provided a comment on the survey itself, but a few noted their commitment to curbing these pollutants.
Whole Foods said it is “proud to be a leader among U.S. supermarkets in our efforts to reduce emissions of hydrofluorocarbons.” A little more than 30 of its stores have switched to carbon-dioxide refrigerants, and it touts one market in Brooklyn that has become 100 percent HFC-free.
Walmart noted it has pledged to reach zero emissions across its operations within two decades, a goal that includes “transitioning to low-impact refrigerants for cooling and electrified equipment for heating in our stores, clubs and data and distribution centers by 2040.”
Giant said it is also transitioning its stores to less climate-damaging refrigerants as part of a plan to halve its overall carbon emissions by 2030 and is also working with suppliers to make further cuts in its supply chain. “We have committed to working with our suppliers to reduce emissions from farm to fork,” said Felis Andrade, a spokeswoman for Giant’s parent company, Ahold Delhaize USA.
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 EIA survey was based on a limited sample in one region of the United States. The investigators were also not able to measure the overall quantity and rate of leakage. But it suggests that large supermarket chains may be unaware of the extent of the problem, and do not have regular monitoring in place. In some cases, the leaks persisted months after they were first detected.
The investigators, who began their survey in 2019, used leak detectors that they could insert in refrigerators and freezers as well as an infrared camera that could film fugitive greenhouse gases.
The food retail sector represents one part of the puzzle of how to drastically cut back on emissions in the coming years. HFCs trap thousands of times more heat than carbon dioxide, and with increasing sales they are projected to represent nearly a fifth of all climate-warming emissions by mid-century. It’s a growing problem: The hotter the Earth gets, the more people need cooling infrastructure.
According to new data released Friday, HFC emissions in the United States rose by 4 million metric tons between 2018 and 2019. The 38,000 supermarkets in the United States use thousands of pounds of HFCs each year, according to the EPA, with each store having the equivalent climate impact of 300 cars on the road. Taken together, it is equal to 49 billion pounds of coal being burned each year.
While monitoring for leaks and upgrading refrigeration systems translate into long-term savings by reducing energy use, stores operating on tight margins cannot always afford it.
Ratio Institute co-founder Jonathan Tan, whose organization works with the food retail industry, policymakers and conservationists on the issue, estimated that while it can cost a store between $50,000 to $100,000 to make repairs to a system, transitioning from current refrigerant to a less-potent greenhouse gas like carbon dioxide can cost between $1 million and $2.5 million.
Walmart, for example, said private companies would need government help in making the transition. “We also believe that private and public sector action is needed to foster innovation and enable an economically viable phasedown of HFCs globally,” it said in a statement.
Europe is making a swifter transition than the United States. Over 26,000 supermarkets in European countries are using lower-impact refrigerants, compared with 600 stores in the United States.
The EPA has regulated earlier generations of refrigerants for decades under the 1987 Montreal Protocol, the landmark global treaty aimed at repairing the ozone layer. Those compounds — chlorofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons — damaged the ozone layer that shields the Earth from damaging ultraviolet rays from the sun. HFCs made an appealing substitute because they didn’t deplete ozone, but they warmed the planet instead.
In 2016, the Obama administration helped broker the Kigali Amendment, where countries pledged to phase down HFCs under the treaty. But the agency’s effort to regulate the refrigerants ran aground during the Trump administration.
One rule identifying “unacceptable” uses of HFCs was partly overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 2017. The administration rewrote the rule, but the same court ruled it failed to follow proper procedures and did not need to abolish the Obama-era requirements altogether. Last year, Trump officials withdrew another Obama-era rule, which required companies to detect and repair any leaks from any appliance or piece of equipment using more than 50 pounds of HFCs.
President Donald Trump declined to submit the Kigali Amendment to the Senate for ratification: President Biden signed an executive order last month instructing his secretary of state to take that step.
The federal government has pursued cases against grocery chains, and won, when it comes to leaks of older refrigerants that damage the ozone layer. In 2019, for example, Southeastern Grocers agreed to spend $4.2 million to reduce coolant leaks and pay a $300,000 civil penalty. But HFCs are in a different category.
“EPA’s recognized that it is a significant contributor to climate change and has tried to take action,” said Tom Land, a longtime agency staffer who retired in 2019 after working on both international climate negotiations and the agency’s voluntary refrigerants program, GreenChill. “It basically had to stop, it didn’t have authority.”
Food retailers that participate in the GreenChill program have a leak rate of 14.3 percent, nearly half the industry average. Kristen Taddonio, senior climate and energy adviser at the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, said in an interview that reinstating regulations mandating leak detection could help grocers make even greater reductions.
“It’s like that old adage, you can’t manage what you can’t measure,” said Taddonio, who worked on energy efficiency at the EPA and the Energy Department between 2004 and 2015.
Anu Narayanswamy contributed to this report.