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EPA to further slash emissions from climate super-pollutants

The latest actions aim to reduce emissions from chemicals that can be thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide in warming the planet

EPA Administrator Michael Regan, seen at the White House in 2021. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

The Environmental Protection Agency announced plans Thursday to further cut emissions of climate super-pollutants widely used in air conditioning and refrigeration, the latest step in the United States’ effort to phase down the potent greenhouse gases.

The federal agency’s new proposed rule would set guidelines to lower the number of available allowances for the production and use of hydrofluorocarbons — chemicals that can be thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide in warming the planet — to 40 percent below historical levels starting in 2024.

“This is a really strong step forward,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a phone interview Thursday. Because the production and consumption of these powerful chemicals need to be phased down, Regan added that the Biden administration is pushing to create “the next generation of chemical compounds that don’t sacrifice the comforts or the needs that we have, but makes significant inroads in staving off the climate crisis while boosting American manufacturing.”

Curbing these super-pollutants, also known as HFCs, is a rare climate issue that has broad bipartisan support as well as buy-in from business and industry. The latest EPA proposal comes about a month after the Senate voted to ratify a global treaty known as the Kigali Amendment to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which calls for a gradual reduction in the use and production of the chemicals.

“This proposal continues to reinforce the president’s vision that the United States will continue to be a global leader on climate change,” Regan said. “It shores up and ensures that we’re on track to meet the goals of the Kigali Amendment.”

U.S. ratifies global treaty curbing climate super-pollutants

Once seen as a solution to using other chemicals that deplete Earth’s protective ozone layer, the heat-trapping properties of hydrofluorocarbons have become a serious problem. A global phase-down of the climate-damaging chemicals is projected to prevent up to 0.5 degree Celsius (0.9 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming by the end of this century.

To proceed with efforts to reduce HFCs, the EPA is proposing to continue allocating production and consumption allowances for 2024 through 2028. The rule is expected to affect manufacturers and entities that import and export HFCs, among other stakeholders. The agency is also looking to make other changes to implementation, compliance and enforcement provisions related to the phase-down, including revised record-keeping and reporting requirements. Under the proposed rule, the EPA would require annual emissions reporting from facilities that produce the chemicals. The EPA plans to finalize this rule next year.

Regan said the proposal should benefit affected companies and allow them to continue investing in U.S. manufacturing and good-paying jobs “to really transition our refrigeration and our air conditioning into the next generation technology that we need not only domestically but globally.”

Avipsa Mahapatra, climate campaign lead at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a nongovernmental advocacy organization, praised the proposal.

“It demonstrates that we are swiftly and steadfastly advancing along the road map ... to end reliance on HFCs for cooling,” Mahapatra said. “The fact that they’re sticking to the schedule itself, I think, is something worth applauding.”

In the United States, the refrigeration and air-conditioning sector uses the most of these chemicals. The EPA noted that its next proposed rule will focus on transitioning away from HFCs in the refrigeration and air conditioning, foams and aerosols sectors.

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.

A number of major supermarket chains, including Walmart and Amazon-owned Whole Foods, have pledged to phase out the chemicals in their operations, where leaking of the super-pollutants has been a pervasive issue. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The commercial food industry estimates that supermarkets lose an average of 25 percent of their refrigerant charge every year. An EIA undercover investigation, which began in 2019, of grocery stores in D.C., Maryland and Virginia found that more than half the surveyed stores were emitting HFCs.

There’s an invisible climate threat seeping from grocery store freezers. Biden wants to change that.

The new regulation proposed Thursday is the next part of a national HFC phase-down program, which is the result of a bipartisan law passed in 2020 that included a provision to slash the powerful pollutants by 85 percent by 2036. The EPA established the program last year and took the first step of limiting HFCs through 2023 by allocating allowances for companies to make or import the chemicals.

As part of the phase-down, the agency has also established enforcement mechanisms that make it harder to illegally traffic HFCs. According to the EPA, in the first nine months of this year, a task force co-led by the agency and the Department of Homeland Security prevented illegal HFC shipments at the border equivalent to more than 889,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide — equivalent to the emissions of a year’s worth of electricity use for nearly 173,000 homes.

The EPA estimates that all provisions of the phase-down effort would yield more than $268 billion in benefits from 2022 through 2050.

“We believe it’s a win, win, win,” Regan said. “This is good for our planet because we’re reducing a super-pollutant. It’s good for people, and it’s good for our bipartisan posture for how we’re putting America first.”

Greenhouse gases in grocery freezers are more powerful than carbon. The EPA now aims to slash their use.

Helen Walter-Terrinoni, vice president of regulatory affairs for the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute, a trade group, said because the proposed rule is similar to the first regulation the EPA finalized last year, it helps “provide continuity and predictability for refrigerant producers and manufacturers alike.”

The EIA’s Mahapatra added that “the writing on the wall is clear on the future of these super-polluting HFCs.”

“We are on an ambitious and aggressive path to ramp up climate-friendly and energy-efficient cooling efforts in the U.S.,” she said.

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Juliet Eilperin and Dino Grandoni contributed to this report.

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