News Brief

EPA Rolls Back Obama-era Refrigerant Rule

Under a new EPA ruling, large commercial HVAC and refrigeration systems will no longer have to address high-GWP refrigerant leaks.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has rescinded the leak-repair provisions that were put in place in 2016 by the Obama administration as part of Section 608 of the Clean Air Act. Section 608 regulates the use of high-ozone-depletion-potential (ODP) refrigerants in HVAC and refrigeration equipment. The Obama administration amended it to reduce emissions of refrigerants with high global-warming potentials (GWP) as well.

Under the Trump administration’s new rule, Protection of Stratospheric Ozone: Revisions to the Refrigerant Management Program’s Extension to Substitutes, many of the 2016 provisions no longer apply to appliances with 50 or more pounds of “substitute” (i.e., low-ODP replacement) refrigerants.

According to the EPA, owners of these larger-scale refrigeration and chiller units are no longer required to:

  • Repair appliances that leak above a certain level (leak rates vary depending on equipment and industry), or conduct verification tests on repairs;
  • Periodically inspect for leaks;
  • Report chronically leaking appliances to the EPA;
  • Retrofit or retire appliances that are not repaired; or
  • Maintain related records.

Proper recovery and disposal of all refrigerants is still required under the new provisions (one can’t intentionally vent refrigerant), but leaks of high-GWP hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants from the biggest appliances will no longer be monitored or regulated.

For background, in 1989 the international community adopted the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. Seven years later, the U.S. wrote Section 608 of the Clean Air Act, banning high-ODP chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) refrigerants and beginning the phase-out of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs; some of which still have high ODPs as well as very high GWPs). In their place, low-ODP HFCs have become the industry standard, but HFCs have another serious problem: many of them have global warming potentials thousands of times higher than that of CO2.

Paul Hawkins’s book Drawdown claims the number one action we can take to fix our greenhouse gas problem is to reduce the impact of high-GWP refrigerants (see The Cost of Comfort: Climate Change and Refrigerants). Though the new EPA ruling will not impact smaller residential air conditioning units, heat pumps, and other HVAC equipment using less than 50 pounds of refrigerant, the provisions will cover many commercial chillers, including larger variable-refrigerant-flow systems (whose long pipe runs and numerous connections increase the chance for leakage). The worst greenhouse-gas-leak offenders—supermarket refrigeration and other industrial-scale refrigeration equipment—are no longer covered, saving these businesses money but increasing the likelihood of high-GWP refrigerants leaking into our environment.

Published April 6, 2020

Ehrlich, B. (2020, April 6). EPA Rolls Back Obama-era Refrigerant Rule. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/newsbrief/epa-rolls-back-obama-era-refrigerant-rule

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Comments

April 13, 2020 - 3:29 pm

Note: Just after publication, a federal appeals court struck down this EPA ruling due to a lawsuit filed by the NRDC and several states. The EPA did not follow procedures that required proper notice and a comment period. Looks like a victory for the NRDC and the climate. We'll see if the EPA appeals the appeal.

Brent