EPA proposes to rescind leak repair rules for HFC equipment

Section 608 requirements for leak repair and maintenance – and possibly more – would go back to applying only to ozone-depleting substances.

In its latest effort to undo environmental regulations instituted by the Obama administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced this week that it has issued a proposed rule that would rescind the leak repair and maintenance requirements for stationary refrigeration and air conditioning equipment containing HFCs.

Those requirements were part of an update to Section 608 of the Clean Air Act issued on November 18, 2016. Under the update, the EPA extended the refrigerant management rules – originally designed for ozone-depleting substances (ODS) – to common ODS substitutes like HFCs.

Section 608 requirements generally apply to supermarkets and other end users of large refrigeration and air conditioning equipment. It asks them to perform repairs for refrigerant leaks above a certain  threshold, which in the 2016 update was lowered from 35% to 20% of annual refrigerant charge for supermarkets. Leak inspection and repair verification requirements under the updated rule are scheduled to take effect on January 1, 2019.

However, under the proposed rule, the EPA would revert to the original language of Section 608, which pertains only to leak repair and maintenance of ODS equipment.

The agency is also requesting comment on whether it should also rescind additional requirements set forth in the 2016 rule pertaining to HFCs, such as the provision requiring purchasers or handlers to be Section 608-certified technicians.

In addition, the EPA is proposing to extend by six to 12 months the January 1, 2019, compliance date for when HFC appliances must begin complying with leak repair and maintenance provisions.

The EPA will hold a public hearing 15 days following its publication in the federal register, and the rulemaking will be open for a public comment period for 45 days following the publication.

The proposed roll back of pivotal controls, intended to reduce superpollutant leaks from some of the highest leaking systems operating today, flies directly in the face of common sense."
– Avipsa Mahapatra, EIA

In an advance copy called “Protection of the Stratospheric Ozone: Revisions to the Refrigerant Management Program’s Extension to Substitutes,” the EPA says that the 2016 amended rule, by covering HFCs, “exceeds EPA’s statutory authority.”

The EPA said its new proposed rule “would reduce the burden associated with the 2016 Rule by $39 million per year.” But it would also boost the need to purchase HFCs “for leaking appliances,” at a cost of $15 million per year, resulting in a net savings of “at least $24 million” per year, the agency said. Rescinding additional provisions of the 2016 rule would save an additional $4 million annually, the EPA said.

The EPA acknowledged that rescinding the HFC rule would add at least 3 million to 3.6 million metric tons of CO2e emissions.

The EPA proposal is raising concerns in industry circles.

"This proposal puts the industry in a tough position," said  Danielle Wright, executive director, North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council (NASRC). "Everyone has been preparing for these regulations for a long time. To change them now creates uncertainty for the future, and uncertainty is bad for business. Federal programs like the EPA offer stability for the industry. Now, we are likely to see a patchwork of various state regulations that could vary and end up being more stringent."

The proposed rule was harshly rebuked by Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). “The proposed roll back of pivotal controls, intended to reduce superpollutant leaks from some of the highest leaking systems operating today, flies directly in the face of common sense,” said Avipsa Mahapatra, EIA’s climate campaign lead.  “Having these measures in place not only would have reduced emissions equivalent to taking some 1.5 million cars off the road each year, it also would have made American industry more efficient in using controlled refrigerants.”

Without the EPA restrictions on HFCs, she added, “only California currently has a program to limit leaks of such superpollutants. Facilities across the rest of the country now will be allowed to leak and vent unlimited quantities of HFCs with no accountability.” 

In response to an Appeals Court ruling in 2017, the EPA has already stepped back from Obama-era rules on HFC regulations under the agency’s Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) program, which called for the removal of high-GWP HFCs from the list of permitted ODS substitutes for new equipment. The agency is pursuing new rule-making regarding HFC regulation. In the meantime, California has passed legislation adopting the EPA’s HFC delisting rules enacted in 2015 and 2016, and last week three more states said they were following suit.

EIA is asking “those states and others to now also take up this issue of HFC refrigerant leaks in existing equipment,” said Christina Starr, EIA’s climate policy analyst. “We can’t afford to wait for this rulemaking to be finalized to take action. Refrigerant leaks are a massive contributor to greenhouse gases with U.S. supermarkets alone leaking emissions annually that are equivalent to 17 coal-fired power plants.” 

Noted Alec Johnson, author of the RefrigerantHQ.com blog, “As time goes on we’re going to have additional states join the phasedown and I have a feeling this new announcement from the EPA is only going to fuel the desire for the States to take matters into their own hands.”

What the proposed rule would do

The EPA’s new proposed rule would rescind the following requirements for appliances with 50 or more pounds of HFCs:

  • conduct leak rate calculations when refrigerant is added to an appliance,
  • repair an appliance that leaks above a threshold leak rate,
  • conduct verification tests on repairs,
  • conduct periodic leak inspections on appliances that exceed the threshold leak rate,
  • report to EPA on chronically leaking appliances,
  • retrofit or retire appliances that are not repaired, and
  • maintain related records.

EPA is also requesting comment on rescinding other provisions that were extended to HFCs, including the following:

  • anyone purchasing refrigerant for use in an appliance or handling refrigerants (e.g., air-conditioning and refrigeration service contractors and technicians) must be a Section 608-certified technician,
  • anyone removing refrigerant from a refrigeration or air-conditioning appliance must evacuate refrigerant to certain level using certified refrigerant recovery equipment before servicing or disposing of the appliance,
  • the final disposer (e.g., scrap recycler, landfill) of small appliances, like refrigerators and window air conditioners, must ensure and document that refrigerant is recovered before final disposal, and
  • all used refrigerant must be reclaimed to industry purity standards before it can be sold to another appliance owner.

By Michael Garry

Sep 21, 2018, 00:51

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