North America

U.S. Court Restores Ban on Switching from ODS to HFCs

In a ruling on April 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit restored a federal prohibition on switching from ozone depleting substances (ODS) to HFCs in uses such as large refrigeration systems in supermarkets.

The court ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency acted illegally in 2018, when the agency issued a guidance suspending limits on the uses of HFCs, following a 2017 ruling by the same court.

In the 2017 ruling, Mexichem Fluor, Inc. v EPA, the court ruled that the EPA’s 2015 SNAP (Significant New Alternatives Program) Rule 20, which disallowed use of high-GWP HFCs in certain applications, could not be applied to end users that had already switched to HFCs. (This was later applied to SNAP Rule 21). However, the court did allow the EPA to continue prohibiting end users still using ODS, notably R22, from moving to HFCs. But the EPA, under then-administrator Scott Pruitt, issued a guidance abandoning any prohibition on HFCs. 

The new ruling vacates that guidance in a victory for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and a coalition of states led by New York, which sued the EPA in 2018 to restore the prohibition.

“This is an important victory for our climate,” said Peter DeMarco, an attorney for the NRDC, in a statement. “The court’s decision restores common-sense restrictions on HFC use that EPA had illegally removed. EPA must ensure that as companies complete their transition away from ozone-depleting substances, they switch to alternatives safer than climate-polluting HFCs.”

SNAP Rule 20 covered such applications as retail food refrigeration (systems, condensing units and stand-alone units) as well as vending machines. In retail food refrigeration it deemed a slew of HFCs unacceptable by certain dates, including R404A and R507A, and R134a in stand-alone medium temperature units. SNAP Rule 21 encompassed such applications as cold-storage warehouses, centrifugal chillers and household refrigerators and freezers, and banned by certain dates such HFCs as R404A and R507A for cold storage systems and R134a for household units.

Under the new ruling, those SNAP 20 and 21 HFC prohibitions once again apply to end users switching out of R22 systems, who would have to seek alternatives such as natural refrigerants or permitted fluorocarbon refrigerants like HFO blends.

The EPA has not yet announced how it will respond to the new ruling, such as by appealing it or by completing the rulemaking process in response to the original 2017 court decision on HFCs. The absence of this rulemaking in its 2018 guidance was one of the areas where the EPA was criticized in the new ruling.

Since the EPA issued its guidance abandoning HFC regulations in 2018, several U.S. states have adopted SNAP Rules 20 and 21, including California, New Jersey, Washington and Vermont, while several other states are in the process of adopting them. In addition, HFC regulation bills have been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.

The court’s decision restores common-sense restrictions on HFC use that EPA had illegally removed.

Peter DeMarco, NRDC