The Biden administration finalized its first new climate rule Thursday, slashing the use of powerful greenhouse gases widely used in home refrigerators and air conditioners and often found to be leaking from U.S. supermarket freezers.
Curbing these super-pollutants is a rare climate issue with broad bipartisan support. When emitted, the chemicals can warm the planet at a rate hundreds to thousands of times higher than carbon dioxide. The new rule implements a law passed by Congress last year.
White House officials said the new rule tackles global warming while supporting jobs to manufacture new alternatives.
“It’s a win on climate and a win on jobs, and American competitiveness,” Gina McCarthy, the White House’s national climate coordinator, told reporters in an online briefing Wednesday evening. “It’s really — frankly, folks — a very big deal.”
President Biden’s team is trumpeting the new rule as a political win at a time when he is struggling to shepherd the rest of his climate agenda through Congress. Democrats are trying to pass a pair of bills aimed at expanding the adoption of solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles, but divisions between the party’s moderate and liberal wings have complicated their passage. It arrives weeks before a crucial United Nations climate summit where Biden will try to show the country can keep its commitments to reduce emissions.
Thursday’s announcement, by contrast, shows how much easier it is for federal agencies to tackle greenhouse gas emissions when empowered by legislation.
The EPA is putting a cap on hydrofluorocarbons through 2023, allocating allowances for companies to make or import them over the next two years. The agency will scale back their use further through 2036 with additional regulation.
Over the coming years, the newly launched program will bring big changes to the way numerous products that today rely on HFCs — including fire extinguishers, aerosol canisters and building insulation — are made.
By 2050, the program will cut nearly the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as three years’ worth of pollution from the U.S. power sector, federal officials project.
Avipsa Mahapatra, climate campaign leader at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a nongovernmental advocacy group, praised regulators for tackling what she called “the most potent super-pollutants known to mankind at the moment.”
“This is a landmark EPA rulemaking,” she said.
HFCs were once an environmental solution — not a problem. They replaced other chemicals that, when released into the atmosphere, eroded the Earth’s protective ozone layer. But their heat-trapping properties still exacerbated global warming. Five years ago, world leaders signed the Kigali Amendment, an update to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, to rein in these super-pollutants.
If fully met, the treaty is expected to prevent up to 0.5 degrees Celsius (0.9 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming by 2100. But President Donald Trump never submitted the treaty for Senate ratification, and his administration rolled backed Obama-era policies aimed at meeting the nation’s commitments under Kigali.
Biden promised to send the treaty to Capitol Hill just after taking office but has yet to do so, even as China and India ratified it this year. “We know he’s committed to taking that action,” McCarthy said, “but I don’t have a time window to discuss with you.”
Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, urged Biden to send the treaty as soon as possible. “There’s no reason to delay ratification,” he said in a statement.
The law underpinning the new restrictions, called the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act, is a result of successful negotiations between the Democratic and Republican allies of environmentalists interested in curbing greenhouse gases and chemical manufacturers eager to sell alternative refrigerants.
A total of 70 companies — including 3M, Arkema, Chemours, Honeywell and Mexichem Fluor — reported making or importing the chemicals between 2011 and 2019, according to the EPA.
But many of those firms backed the law restricting the use of HFCs since they also market climate-friendly alternatives. Both Carper and Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.), who spearheaded the law, have chemical manufacturing in their states.
EPA chief Michael Regan, who signed the regulation Thursday, hailed the bipartisan legislation as “one of the most significant environmental laws in recent history.”
Many companies must now wean themselves from using the versatile chemicals.
Seepage of the super-pollutants is pervasive at many U.S. grocery stores, where networks of chiller pipes leak the invisible gases. Several big chains, including Aldi and Amazon-owned Whole Foods, have taken steps to use alternative refrigerants in stores. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Yet a recent undercover probe by the EIA underscores that the problem persists in some grocery stores. More than half of the supermarkets surveyed with leak detectors and infrared cameras in the Washington area were emitting the climate-warming refrigerants, investigators found in February.
Ridding supermarkets of the super-pollutants will involve swapping in more climate-friendly chemicals, or in some cases entirely replacing refrigeration systems.
Another industry pressed hard by new limitations are recreational boat manufacturers, which are scrambling to figure out a way of making lightweight plastic for hulls without using the newly restricted chemicals.
“We have to find an alternative, and they’re working hard to find one,” said John McKnight, a senior vice president at the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
The makers of heating and cooling equipment are eager for the new business the regulation will spark. Stephen Yurek, head of the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute, a trade group, said in a statement that the rule is “a critical step in the 15-year industry-supported process of phasing down HFCs.”
Some conservative critics are faulting the Biden administration for forcing a transition to more expensive products. “The proposed rule would hurt those least able to afford the increased cost of air conditioning while benefiting large corporate interests,” Clint Woods, a policy fellow at the libertarian advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, told the EPA in a public comment.
There is still a lot more for the federal government to do.
This week, the EPA also proposed a separate rule requiring manufacturers to control, capture and destroy a particularly potent manufacturing byproduct — called HFC-23 — that is more than 12,000 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over the course of a century. And in mid-October, the EPA will act on 13 petitions from green groups, companies and left-leaning states to further restrict the use of HFCs in a range of appliances, including dehumidifiers and commercial refrigeration equipment.
Danielle Wright, head of the North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council, a business group advocating for the use of ammonia and other alternative refrigerants at supermarkets, said the United States should pursue a much more aggressive timetable.
“We want to see it go much lower — much, much faster,” she said, adding that the European Union has mandated faster cuts across the board.
Yet European countries have been plagued by an influx of illicitly imported HFCs — something their U.S. counterparts are seeking to avoid. On Thursday, the White House launched a task force with EPA and Department of Homeland Security officials to detect and deter illegal trade of the chemicals that will soon become much scarcer.
The administration is also establishing a certification system using QR codes to track shipments in real time, making it “very tough to slip black-market products into the market,” according Cynthia Giles, who headed the EPA’s enforcement office under President Barack Obama.
David Doniger, an air pollution expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, praised the “positive, fast-moving start” by an often sluggish federal bureaucracy to establish the program, proposed in May. “When was the last time the EPA hit a statutory deadline?”
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