Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced this week that his administration will phase out the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), one of the most powerful climate pollutants on earth. By directing the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to promulgate regulations to remove HFCs from common use, Cuomo is contravening Trump administration federal mandates not to regulate HFCs.
In August of 2017, a Washington, D.C., federal appeals court decreed that the EPA had overstepped its authority in regulating HFCs under the Clean Air Act. The ruling seemed to leave the US without an immediate legal mechanism to control HFCs, which amount to about 3% of US climate pollution — that is, until Cuomo stepped up in New York.
The eventual HFC ban will advance Governor Cuomo’s directive within his 2018 State of the State address for the DEC to work with other state agencies to reduce the emission of HFCs in New York. With the finalization of the HFC proposal, New York joins California and Canada in requiring the phase-out of these dangerous pollutants. As a result, it is likely that the refrigerant industry will follow suit nationally and globally, so US businesses that produce the substitutes for HFCs will benefit from New York’s strong policy-making.
Significant New Alternatives Policy: An HFC Primer
The HFC regulations Cuomo has announced will enact 2015 and 2016 proposed changes to the Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP), which was established under Section 612 of the Clean Air Act. The Act’s goal was to identify and evaluate substitutes for ozone-depleting substances, and SNAP was to create new demand for refrigerant products and expertise across the globe. US companies have traditionally led development of refrigerants such as those used in air conditioning and other appliances.
A bit of a history lesson is in order here. The Montreal Protocol is the 1987 international treaty banning chemicals that deplete the ozone layer. At the time the deal was negotiated, scientists said that it could prevent a 0.5°C (0.9°F) rise in temperature by 2100. That would represent significant progress toward the goal embedded in the Paris Agreement of keeping temperature rise below 2°C (3.6°F) by 2100.
Using the Clean Air Act to comply with the Montreal Protocol, the EPA chose HFCs to replace ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, in aerosol cans and refrigerators — the main cause of the ozone hole. Without recognizing the climate impact, the agency declared then that HFCs would not harm the ozone layer and were a safe replacement for CFCs.
The Obama administration tried to fix the HFC problem by helping to negotiate the Kigali (Rwanda) Agreement and by requiring companies in the US to phase out HFCs as part of the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan. Without the ban, the EPA estimated that HFC pollution would triple by 2030.
Subsequent Republican control of the White House and Congress have allowed policymakers to reverse Obama Administration regulations that are either in effect or still in the rulemaking process. Under the Trump administration, the US Environmental Protection Agency has declined to pursue SNAP initiatives, even though business leaders have tried to convince them to stick with the deal.
Honeywell intervened and joined with the Natural Resources Defense Council to keep the Kigali Amendment in tact, to no avail. Honeywell said in a statement:
“Phasing down the use of HFCs is a critical step that the world is taking to encourage the adoption of technologies that radically reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) impact of refrigerants, aerosols, solvents, and blowing agents. We believe the EPA’s regulation was well-supported by the law and was in the best interests of the public, industry and the environment.”
According to the EPA website, the 2018 SNAP program continues to provide a safe, smooth transition away from harmful ozone-depleting substances (ODS) – which have been, or are being, phased out, like in New York – by identifying acceptable and unacceptable substitutes. Looking at overall risks to human health and the environment, the SNAP program outlines existing and new substitutes, publishes lists of substitutes, promotes the use of acceptable substances, and provides the public with information. SNAP offers manufacturers, formulators, and end-users the opportunity to submit their proposed substitutes for ozone-depleting substances for consideration and feedback. It’s a way of combining anticipation and innovation into sustainable progress.
[Note: We made an attempt to contact SNAP to determine if and how their mandates have changed. At this writing, we haven’t heard back from them.]
What are Hydrofluorocarbons, and Why Are They So Bad?
HFCs are a group of potent greenhouse gas pollutants used in a wide variety of applications. They lurk in the leaky refrigerator cases of grocery stores and air conditioners. The New York state regulations would prohibit specific substances for use in new consumer products, new equipment, and equipment that is retrofit after the compliance dates. Those products include aerosol propellants, commercial and residential food refrigeration equipment, commercial air-conditioning equipment, light-duty vehicle air-conditioning, and foam-blowing agents.
HFCs are a class of compounds primarily composed of carbon and hydrogen. The health effects of hydrocarbons have been noted in occupational exposures to tetra methyl lead and benzene, among others. As major components of oil, natural gas, and pesticides, these substances:
- contribute to the greenhouse effect and climate change
- deplete the ozone
- reduce photosynthetic ability of plants
- increase occurrences of cancer and respiratory disorders in humans
- do untold damage to the environment through oil spills
Methane and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are two hydrocarbons that can drastically alter the atmosphere.
- Methane oxidizes into carbon dioxide (CO2), increasing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and adding to the greenhouse effect and global warming.
- CFCs are used in refrigeration and aerosol cans. When they’re released into the atmosphere, they produce chlorine and reduce the ozone layer, which protects the earth from ultraviolet radiation. Because of this, humans, animals and plants are more exposed to harmful UV rays.
State funding is available in New York to accelerate the reduction of the use of HFCs more quickly. The funding includes nearly $9 million through the Climate Smart Communities program for adaption and greenhouse gas mitigation projects, including the following:
- grants for municipalities to reduce refrigerant leakage, replace or retrofit refrigeration, chillers or air-conditioning equipment (e.g., food-storage or ice-rink equipment) with low global-warming-potential refrigerants
- install refrigerant leakage monitoring equipment
- establish monitoring and repair plans
- establish enhanced disposal programs to recover and recycle refrigerants
- adopt codes or standards to encourage the use of alternative refrigerants
An additional $1 million will be available for other projects to address HFCs and other short-lived climate pollutants.
NY Leaders Call Out Trump Administration on Climate Change Action Weakness
New York announced this new step against HFCs at the Global Climate Action Summit held on September 13-14, 2018 in San Francisco.
The NY phase-out, which will be implemented from 2020-2024, is expected to reduce HFC emissions by more than 20% of projected levels by 2030. DEC will be seeking input on this proposal prior to proceeding with a formal rulemaking, with the intent of finalization in 2019.
While ordering that HFCs be phased out, Governor Cuomo scoffed at the short-sightedness of the Trump administration’s position regarding climate change.
“While the Trump administration denies climate change and rolls back efforts to protect our planet, New York is picking up the mantle of climate leadership and forging a path forward. We are taking action to begin the phase out of the use of hydrofluorocarbons, and I encourage other states to join with New York and California to combat dangerous HFCs. In New York, we believe denial is not a life strategy, and we will continue to fight climate change to protect our economy, our planet, and our future.”
Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul concurred,
“As the Trump administration continues to roll back our progress and deny the impact of climate change, New York is stepping up and continuing to ensure our environment is protected and safe. We are working to phase out the use of hydrofluorocarbons in products to reduce emissions and help to achieve our goals as part of the Paris Climate Agreement and to decrease greenhouse gas emissions.”
Governor Cuomo’s climate change policies are leading the nation toward a cleaner, more sustainable future. Through nation-leading efforts like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, New York is aggressively cutting carbon dioxide, which is the primary greenhouse gas emitted through human activities. Another New York initiative to tackle other greenhouse gasses is the 25-point Methane Reduction Plan to reduce emissions of the heat-trapping pollutant that is at least 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.
Moreover, after the federal government announced its intention in 2017 to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change, New York joined with California and Washington State to form the US Climate Alliance to uphold the goals of the agreement. The US Climate Alliance has grown to include 17 governors representing nearly half of the US gross domestic product.
New York is also taking aggressive measures to help consumers access energy efficient appliances and other solutions to reduce their carbon footprint. The State offers rebates for certain new appliance or equipment purchases, and consumers statewide can access energy efficiency programs through either NYSERDA or their local utility.