WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency proposed a rule Monday to slash the use and production of a class of powerful greenhouse gases used widely in refrigeration and air conditioning in the next decade and a half.
The proposal marks the first time President Joe Biden’s administration has used the power of the federal government to mandate a cut in climate pollution.
Unlike many of the administration’s other climate initiatives, there’s broad bipartisan support for curbing hydrofluorocarbons, pollutants thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide at warming the planet. Congress agreed at the end of last year to slash the super-pollutants by 85% by 2036 as part of a broader omnibus bill.
A global phasedown of hydrofluorocarbons, also known as HFCs, is projected to avert up to 0.5 degree Celsius (0.9 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming by the end of the century.
Widely used in refrigeration as well as residential and commercial air conditioning and heat pumps, HFCs were developed as a substitute for chemicals that depleted the Earth’s protective ozone layer. But their heat-trapping properties have helped further fuel rising temperatures.
“With this proposal, EPA is taking another significant step under President Biden’s ambitious agenda to address the climate crisis,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement. “The phasedown of HFCs is also widely supported by the business community, as it will help promote American leadership in innovation and manufacturing of new climate-safe products. Put simply, this action is good for our planet and our economy.”
The new rule lays out how the agency would provide allowances for the production and use of HFCs starting next year, with those amounts shrinking in the years to come. For 2022 and 2023, the EPA plans to set the U.S. level of consumption at a rate that, if released, would be equal to 269.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.
The EPA plans to finalize its system for allowances, which could be traded between companies, in place by Jan. 1. Last month, EPA finalized a list of new refrigerant options that could be used as substitutes.
The EPA is also proposing to establish a new enforcement system that targets one of the most powerful chemicals in this class, HFC-23, which often arises as a byproduct of making Teflon and other plastics. The proposal would institute tracking measures, mandate third-party auditing and require that suppliers put the chemicals in reusable cylinders that would make it harder to traffic illegally in HFCs.
Avipsa Mahapatra, climate lead for the nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency, said in an interview that the proposed regulation anticipates many of the problems that might arise from cutting HFC use and production so sharply.
“It’s very forward looking,” said Mahapatra, whose group has conducted several undercover investigations focused on climate-damaging refrigerants. She added that the group is “thrilled” that the new administration has acted so swiftly to target these pollutants. “They have not compromised on ambition in the interest of speed.”
The moves mark a sharp shift from the Trump administration, which rolled back Obama-era policies aimed at fulfilling the nation’s commitment to reduce HFCs under a 2016 international agreement, called the Kigali Amendment. President Donald Trump never submitted the treaty for Senate ratification, and his deputies reversed a rule requiring companies to detect and repair leaks from any appliance or piece of equipment using more than 50 pounds of HFCs.