On January 1, 2017, EPA published a Final Rule containing significant updates to the Refrigerant Management Requirements under Title VI of the Clean Air Act. These requirements were originally intended to protect the stratospheric ozone layer by controlling the production, use, and emissions of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) following U.S. ratification of the Montreal Protocol in 1988. The production and use of these chemicals has been almost entirely phased out as equipment manufacturers and users have largely switched to non-ozone-depleting refrigerants such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).
Common Refrigerants and Classes (see attachment)
HFCs have not turned out to be a perfect replacement however. While these chemicals are not detrimental to the stratospheric ozone layer, they do have an extremely high Global Warming Potential - many are more than a thousand times more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere. For this reason, EPA's Final Rule extends the Refrigerant Management Requirements to apply to certain HFCs as well as to the aforementioned ozone-depleting substances. The new rule also strengthens the existing requirements by allowing lower leak rates for regulated equipment, tougher certification requirements for the technicians who service such equipment, and stricter recordkeeping and repair requirements for facilities.
The Final Rule allows some time for compliance with the updated requirements. Restrictions on the sale of certain HFCs will go into effect on January 1, 2018, beginning the phase-down and eventual phase-out of these chemicals altogether. The requirements for proper maintenance, disposal, and recordkeeping for equipment containing these HFCs will also take effect on January 1, 2018. Facility owners and managers will therefore have the rest of 2017 to update their refrigerant inventory and review the new requirements. Technicians will need to have an updated certification to handle HFC-containing equipment by January 1, 2018.
EPA's authority to regulate and phase-out these chemicals under the Clean Air Act was challenged in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on February 17, 2017 by a pair of HFC manufacturers (Mexichem Fluor v. EPA, D.C. Cir., No. 15-1328). The plaintiff's argument centers on the fact that EPA originally billed HFCs as safer alternatives to other ozone-depleting refrigerants, and that the original intent of these rules was to prevent stratospheric ozone depletion, not climate change. This Final Rule was notably absent from the Trump Administration's Executive Order to roll back other Obama Era climate change policies and regulations which primarily affected the fossil-fuel energy industry.
Manufacturers of HFCs and their replacements are anxiously awaiting a decision in this lawsuit, as are facility managers and operators of refrigeration equipment. We will continue to watch this case and will publish an updated alert when a decision has been made. If your facility operates refrigeration equipment, now is the time to review your refrigerant inventory as well as discuss these upcoming requirements with your certified refrigeration technician.