EPA, International Community Moves Forward with HFC/ HCFC Phase Out

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is continuing its phase-out of certain hydrofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons in favor of safer, more climate-friendly alternatives, which is expected to create new opportunities for the natural refrigerants industry. So far, the EPA has focused on commercial applications, although a rule on industrial applications may emerge eventually.

“As you’re removing synthetic refrigerants from being acceptable alternatives, you’re going to see people asking where they go next,” said Lowell Randel, vice president of government and legal affairs for IIAR. “Natural refrigerants, like ammonia and carbon dioxide, are alternatives companies will consider.”

In July, EPA published its final rule under the Significant New Alternatives Policy prohibiting certain hydrofluorocarbons — HFCs, and it is no longer acceptable to use those particular HFCs in specific applications after specified dates. EPA said HFC-containing blends affected by the rulemaking are used in aerosols, foam-blowing, motor-vehicle air conditioning, retail food refrigeration and vending machines.

“To date, that [phaseout] has really been focused on the refrigeration space for commercial applications rather than industrial applications,” Randel said, adding that he expects a rule that will apply to the industrial sector eventually. “They haven’t tipped their hand on when we might see a rulemaking. It is not imminent but indications are that is the direction we’re going.”

The overall trend is going to continue to move away from the HFCs. “It is a matter of when and not if,” Randel said. “Ammonia and CO2 will be good viable options for the transition and we’ve already seen that to be the case in Europe.”

A number of countries are pushing to include the prohibition of certain HFCs in the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty designed to phase out the production of certain substances in order to improve Earth’s ozone layer. “There have been a few countries that have been hesitant to include that because of the impact it would have on their economy,” Randel said.

Parties involved in the Montreal Protocol met in November in Dubai. “Meetings like that one are hopefully going to give us more clarity on where things are headed,” Randel said, adding that with meetings at the international level it takes a long time to come to a resolution, which is typically followed by a lengthy transition period. “They’re negotiating right now what the phasedown might look like.”

During the meeting, attendees agreed to a pathway for including HFCs in the Montreal Protocol. “The goal is to complete work on adding HFCs by the end of 2016, although that timeline can obviously slip,” Randell said.

The Montreal Protocol already requires reductions of certain hydrochlorofluorocarbons — HCFCs. “The main one we’re concerned about is R-22,” Randel said.

The EPA’s published schedule calls for an end to R-22 production by 2020. “EPA published the phase-out schedule about a year ago and there hasn’t been much development on the HCFC front, other than that people are trying to figure out the transition,” Randel said. Under the R-22 phase out, the chemical can’t be produced in or imported into the U.S. The result has been a dramatic increase in the price of the refrigerant with a significant economic impact on the industry.