North America

U.S. EPA Rescinds Obama-Era Leak-Repair Rules for HFCs

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced yesterday that it is rescinding a 2016 Obama administration rule that extended refrigerant leak repair requirements to HFCs and HFOs for equipment containing more than 50lbs (23kg) of refrigerant, including most supermarket and industrial applications.

The new rule – “Protection of Stratospheric Ozone: Revisions to the Refrigerant Management Program’s Extension to Substitutes” – will go into effect 30 days after its publication in the Federal Register. 

In particular, the EPA is rescinding the following requirements for HFCs and HFOs:

  • Repairing appliances that leak above a certain level and conducting verification tests on repairs.
  • Periodically inspecting for leaks.
  • Reporting chronically leaking appliances to the EPA.
  • Retrofitting or retiring appliances that are not repaired. 
  • Maintaining related records.

The EPA originally established refrigerant leak repair requirementsand associated recordkeeping and reporting provisionsfor ozone-depleting substances (ODS) such as CFCs and HCFCs under section 608 of the Clean Air Act (CAA). On November 18, 2016, the EPA extended the requirements to “non-exempt ODS substitutes” like HFCs and HFOs, while reducing the minimum annual leak rate necessitating repairs from 35% to 20% for commercial systems, and 35% to 30% for industrial process refrigeration. (Refrigerants exempted from section 608 requirements are those whose emissions don’t harm the environment, like natural refrigerants; non-exempt substitutes are still not allowed to be purposely vented to the atmosphere.)

“The EPA concludes that, as a legal matter, the 2016 Rule’s extension of the leak repair requirements to non-exempt substitute refrigerants exceeded the EPA’s statutory authority under CAA section 608,” the EPA wrote in its preliminary finl rule issued on February 26. “Accordingly, the EPA is rescinding the 2016 Rule’s extension of the leak repair requirements to non-exempt substitutes.” 

The EPA noted that its new rule does not rescind the other provisions in the 2016 rule that were extended to HFCs and HFOs, “such as the sales restriction and technician certification requirement, safe disposal requirements, evacuation  requirements, reclamation standards, and requirement to use certified recovery equipment.”The new rule also leaves regulations pertaining to ODS intact.

The Washington, D.C. (U.S.)-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) condemned the new rule. “In a time of acute need for action to tackle the climate crisis, the U.S. EPA has reversed a basic safeguard against leaking super-pollutant HFCs,” said Avipsa Mahapatra, the EIA’s Climate Campaign Lead. “It is unacceptable to stand by and write a blank check for dumping these gases into our atmosphere. This flies against logic, as reducing leaks saves businesses money in addition to reducing emissions.”

“Fortunately, there is a global momentum to minimize use of these potent greenhouse gases now that nearly 100 countries—although not the United States– have ratified the Kigali Amendment to phase down HFCs,” she added. 

“This is a disastrous reversal of a common-sense climate policy that was just a starting point for the U.S. toward doing its part in tackling the massive global opportunity to avoid nearly 100 billion tons of emissions from existing refrigerant banks,” said Christina Starr, EIA Climate Policy Analyst. “Policymakers at every level have an obligation to improve refrigerant management and disposal. U.S. Climate Alliance states, many of which are already adopting other regulations on HFCs should also take swift action on refrigerant leaks and end-of-life issues.” 

The EIA noted that the average supermarket leaks about 25%, “or thousands of pounds of refrigerant each year, which adds up to the emissions equivalent to nearly 400 cars.” Reducing leak rates of all US supermarkets by 50% would mitigate approximately 15.5 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent emissions annually in 2025 and save the average supermarket $2,400 each year on new refrigerant, said the EIA.

In a time of acute need for action to tackle the climate crisis, the U.S. EPA has reversed a basic safeguard against leaking super-pollutant HFCs.

Avipsa Mahapatra, EIA