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Biden administration to propose first rule requiring cut in climate pollutants

The new Environmental Protection Agency rule targets hydrofluorocarbons, greenhouse gases that are thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan supports the Biden administration's climate plan. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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The Environmental Protection Agency proposed a rule Monday to slash the use and production of a class of powerful greenhouse gases used widely in refrigeration and air conditioning in the next decade and a half. 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 by 2036 as part of a broader omnibus bill.

A global phasedown 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 increase temperatures.

“With this proposal, EPA is taking another significant step under President Biden’s ambitious agenda to address the climate crisis,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement. “The phasedown of HFCs is also widely supported by the business community, as it will help promote American leadership in innovation and manufacturing of new climate-safe products. Put simply, this action is good for our planet and our economy.”

The new rule lays out how the agency would provide allowances for the production and use of HFCs starting next year, with those amounts shrinking in the years to come. For 2022 and 2023, the EPA plans to set the U.S. level of consumption at a rate that, if released, would be equal to 269.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s equivalent to the annual emissions of 58.5 million U.S. cars.

The EPA plans to finalize its system for allowances, which could be traded between companies, in place by Jan. 1. Last month, EPA finalized a list of new refrigerant options that could be used as 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, mandate third-party auditing and require that suppliers put the chemicals in reusable cylinders that would make it harder to traffic illegally in HFCs.

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” that the new administration has acted so swiftly to target these pollutants, saying: “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 the nation’s commitment to reduce HFCs under a 2016 international agreement, called the Kigali Amendment. President 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 administration 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. A total of 119 other nations have ratified the treaty. The European Union and Canada already have their own regulations in place dealing with HFCs, while China agreed to work with the United States to cut their use when John F. Kerry, Biden’s international climate envoy, visited there last month.

In the meantime these heat-trapping gases’ emissions rose by 4 million metric tons between 2018 and 2019 in the United States, according to the EPA.

Tracking Biden's environmental policies

The new rule arose from a rare bipartisan deal in Congress that Republican Sens. John Barrasso (Wyo.) and John Neely Kennedy (La.) sponsored with Democratic Sen. Thomas R. Carper (Del.).

Carper, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, hailed the implementation of the law, which he said “will create hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs that will combat climate change.”

Barrasso spokesman Mike Danylak said in an email that the senator is reviewing the proposed rule, adding that he “is concerned about the lack of advanced notice for Senate Republican committee leaders, especially given the provision was fully bipartisan when it passed Congress.”

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 that its proposed rule would yield $284 billion in benefits from 2022 through 2050, while saving industry money with cheaper chemicals and more energy-efficient equipment. 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, about equal to the annual greenhouse gas emissions from one out of every seven vehicles registered in the United States.

U.S. manufacturers have developed more climate-friendly refrigerants, and several major chemical companies lobbied for transitioning away from hydrofluorocarbons. Stephen Yurek, head of the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute, which represents makers of heating and cooling equipment, said his trade group’s members “appreciate the expediency” with which the EPA issued the rule.

“EPA’s action will help create the certainty necessary for U.S. companies to maintain their natural technological advantage in the global HFC marketplace,” he added.

A number of large supermarket chains — including Walmart and Whole Foods, which is owned by 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. A recent EIA undercover investigation of grocery stores in Washington, 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 operations, accounts for about 28 percent of all U.S. emissions of HFCs. Air conditioning for commercial buildings and homes represents 40 to 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 that the federal government’s HFC regulations are consistent with those from California, which has acted on its own to curb the greenhouse gases.

Kevin Messner, senior vice president for policy and government relations at the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, a trade group, said he hopes “states will defer to a national program to meet climate targets” and avoid a patchwork of rules nationwide.

Kristen Taddonio, senior climate and energy adviser for the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, praised the EPA’s move in an email but suggested that it could go further. On Monday, the group filed a petition with the agency to speed up approval 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.”