Lawmakers and industry groups are worried fast-approaching Environmental Protection Agency rules banning certain gases used in commercial refrigeration and air conditioners could have a chilling effect on business.
The EPA is looking to impose the new rules starting in January 2016, restricting refrigeration coolants commonly found in grocery stores, restaurants and cars -- not only in fridges and air conditioners but also vending machines and insulation.
Critics, though, complain the proposed rules would force commercial refrigeration to shift from what's known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) to alternative coolants -- only a few years after they were told HFCs were the best alternative to ozone-depleting gasses.
And they’re worried about the tight timetable, calling the January 2016 deadline “arbitrary and capricious.”
“That [deadline] puts everyone in a difficult position, with manufacturers not knowing how to spend their resources and dollars,” said Stephen Yurek, president and CEO of the Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute.
“We just can’t go to our members and tell them not to worry about it.”
Rep. Kyle Whitfield, R-Ky., chairman of the House energy and power subcommittee, is also raising concerns, sending a letter to the EPA last week asking for more information about the rules.
“I understand the consensus among the affected companies in the refrigeration, motor vehicle and insulation industries is that the proposed compliance requirement would cause considerable economic harm and job losses, and may increase rather than reduce safety for the American public,” he wrote.
Part of the problem is industry voices say they can’t keep up with federal rules that dictate what is and what isn’t killing the ozone layer and spewing dangerous greenhouse gasses into the air.
More than 20 years ago, the EPA, under the guidance of the Montreal Protocol, decided to end the use of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) because they were accelerating ozone depletion. At the time, HFCs were considered a better alternative because they are safer for the ozone.
But now, HFCs are said to be contributing to greenhouse gas emissions 1,430 times more damaging to the climate than carbon dioxide, as the demand for utilities using HFCs in developing nations rises.
“If HFC growth continues on the current trajectory, the increase in HFC emissions is projected to offset much of the climate benefit achieved by phasing out ozone-depleting substances,” the EPA has stated. It estimates commercial refrigeration accounts for approximately 32 percent of global HFC use.
The EPA issued the new proposed rules (as an amendment to the Clean Air Act) in July 2014, and opened them up to public comment. The agency has not said when the final rules will be announced. The EPA did not return a request for comment.
Whitfield, in his letter, said not only are there concerns with the phase-out but there were concerns with the potential alternatives – one being a specific, flammable alternative gas. Aside from the refrigerants, all foam-blowing sprays used for insulation must be HFC-free by January 2017, and motor vehicle air conditioners by 2021.
Any new construction after the deadline will have to incorporate machines using HFC alternatives. While retail owners will be allowed to use their existing machines with HFCs after January 2016, they won’t be able to buy replacement parts for the old technology, and will eventually have to transition all equipment to adjust to the new coolants.
Whitfield contends it’s a costly process and “American consumers will bear much of the cost of the proposed rule” through higher prices and less energy efficiency. He doesn’t even know if the new rules would be “legal” under the Clean Air Act.
Avipsa Mahapatra, international climate policy analyst at Environmental Investigation Agency, does not agree with Whitfield’s assessment. She said good alternatives are out there, and supermarkets are already taking advantage of them in Europe and Canada and in scattered stores in the U.S.
“It makes good business sense,” she said, insisting that the replacement gases are more efficient, and safer, than the HFCs. She pointed out that globally, HFCs are being phased out, and said the U.S. is in a great position to lead the shift.
Already, major chemical and technology companies like DuPont, Coca-Cola and Honeywell have signed on, with millions of dollars, to make the transition work.
“The [current] technology is becoming obsolete,” Mahapatra told FoxNews.com. “I do not believe this new rule would kill business. If anything it is an amazing opportunity for American businesses to be leaders. In five, 10 or 15 years, when the rest of the world is looking to buy new technology, they will look toward to the U.S. to buy it.”
Yurek said, for his association, it’s not necessarily the rules but the time frame that has them scratching their heads.
“We understand we have to move to refrigeration [coolants] that are available, and that have low global warming potential,” he said. The institute has also pledged $5 million for research and development to find such alternatives. “We want to limit the environmental impact.”
However, “there is all sorts of pressure” to move now, and without widely approved alternatives.
“Everybody is researching and trying to find the alternative that provides the best efficiency and performance – and we don’t have that yet,” Yurek said. “[The deadline is] coming fast. We want to comply but it is so disconcerting.”