On October 17, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a final rule to reduce and phase out domestic production of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), a type of chemical commonly used as a coolant in air conditioning and refrigerator units. HCFCs deplete stratospheric ozone, a layer of the atmosphere which protects the surface of the Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation. A complete global phase-out of the chemicals is set to take place within five years under the Montreal Protocol, the international agreement established to phase out substances contributing to ozone depletion. In order to abide by the provisions of the Montreal Protocol as a signing Party, the U.S. must eliminate production and consumption of HCFCs by 2030. EPA’s new rule will smooth the process of ramping down HCFC use, as regulations originally prohibited HCFCs starting January 1, 2015. The EPA rule applies to the production and consumption of HCFCs in air conditioning and refrigeration equipment installed before 2010. The EPA encourages state-of-the-art leak detection and maintenance, as well as the recycling, recovery and reuse of HCFCs. It has said that the rule will “promote a smooth and stable transition” toward the use of non-ozone depleting substances in order to protect human health and the environment. The rule will also include commercial incentives for converting equipment presently using HCFCs to equipment that is more energy efficient and less contributive to global warming.

As part of global Montreal Protocol compliance, another class of chemicals, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), was created to replace HCFCs and CFCs. While their use does not further contribute to the degradation of stratospheric ozone, they are very powerful greenhouse gases which can warm the atmosphere thousands of times more than equivalent amounts of carbon dioxide. HFC emissions are currently the fastest-growing type of greenhouse gas emissions and are expected to double within a decade, becoming a substantial contributor to global warming. These emissions can be reduced by using substitutes with a smaller greenhouse gas potential, repairing coolant leakages, and taking measures to reclaim refrigerants. Given the high global-warming potential of HFCs, the United States, Canada and Mexico have proposed an amendment to the Montreal Protocol to phase out HFCs as well. At an EESI briefing last year, Ambassador Asterio Takesy from the Federated States of Micronesia—the first country to propose such an amendment—said, “For us in Micronesia, [this problem] is existential. Much of our land has already disappeared. And if we continue to do business as usual, we will be history by 2050. That cannot be.” The Group of Twenty (G-20) countries also recently agreed to phase-down HFCs.

Two alternative coolants to HFCs, hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs) and carbon dioxide (CO2), are up to 99 percent less potent at warming the climate than HFCs; however, the complex array of regulations at the international and state levels has made business planning difficult. One such alternative currently on the market is R-1234yf, a car-coolant chemical which is an HFO chemical. However, in October 2014 the European Commission filed an anti-trust suit against Honeywell International Inc. and DuPont Co, who collaborated to produce R-1234yf and are the only two suppliers of the chemical. The European Commission suspects the manufacturers limited the ability of rivals to develop and produce the coolant. In an email, the Commission wrote, “The commission has concerns that a series of agreements concluded between Honeywell and DuPont in 2010 may have hindered competition.” Honeywell responded by saying the claims were “baseless and conflict with the E.U.’s own laws that encourage collaboration and development,” adding, “by collaborating on expensive and risky development, Honeywell and DuPont were able to develop [the coolant] in time [for a 2017 deadline] for new E.U. climate rules.” DuPont responded similarly and said it “will fight every step of the way, as [the anti-trust suit] has no basis or fact.” The European investigation could lead to fines as high as 10 percent of yearly sales.

There are also some safety concerns with R-1234yf. With Germany’s support, car manufacturer Daimler AG has refused to use R-1234yf, saying it is too flammable. The European Union is lobbying Germany to stop supporting Daimler, and bring the company into compliance with E.U. environmental rules mandating lower greenhouse gas emission from cars. In 2013, a French court overturned a block on sales of Daimler cars in France due to their use of an older refrigerant. The Honeywell/DuPont product is the only car-coolant chemical that presently meets new European Union (EU) standards for greenhouse gas emissions, as well as ozone depletion standards.


Author: Angelo Bardales