The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently held a stakeholder meeting to provide information about an upcoming regulatory action that the Agency intends to propose under subsection (h), “Management of Regulated Substances,” of the AIM Act.
Specifically, the Agency will establish regulations to control the “practices, processes, or activities regarding the servicing, repair, disposal, or installation of equipment,” in order to maximize the reclamation and minimize the release of certain HFCs from equipment. The Agency will also consider options to increase opportunities for reclaiming HFC refrigerants, while coordinating with similar EPA regulations, such as the refrigerant management program established under Title VI of the Clean Air Act.
Legs of the Stool
To recap, the AIM Act authorizes EPA to address HFCs in three main ways: phasing down HFC production and consumption, facilitating the transition to next-generation technologies through sector-based restrictions, and promulgating certain regulations for the purposes of maximizing reclamation and minimizing releases of HFCs and their substitutes from equipment. As Chris Grundler, director of the office of atmospheric protection at EPA, noted, these can be considered to be three legs of the regulatory stool.
The first leg, he said, is the overall phasedown on the import and production of HFCs. Last year, EPA created a framework for the phasedown and allocated HFC allowances for imports and production through 2023. Last month, EPA issued a proposed rule to implement the next step of the phasedown, which consists of a 40% reduction below baseline levels, starting in 2024.
“We estimate that this phasedown will reduce $270 billion in cumulative impacts by 2050, which is the most benefits in the history of federal rulemaking,” he said. “In terms of emission reductions, we estimate 4.6 billion metric tons of CO2, which is equivalent to nearly three years of power plant emissions at the 2019 levels.”
The second leg of the stool supports the technology transition to lower-GWP alternatives and products and equipment using the authority of subsection (i) of the AIM Act, entitled “Technology Transitions.” This subsection provides EPA with the authority to restrict the use of regulated HFCs in sectors or subsectors where they are used.
“We have completed our work on this rule and it's now going through the interagency review process, which is run by the White House,” said Grundler. “We are expecting this rule to be publicly proposed very soon and we expect that when this regulation is finalized, it will produce additional climate benefits that can be achieved by the industry by adopting these newer technologies.”
The third leg of the stool involves managing the existing stock of HFCs and their substitutes, and this stakeholder meeting was the first step in that process. The HFC management provisions of the AIM Act direct EPA to consider a wide range of actions, with the goal of reducing emissions and maximizing the reclamation of HFCs from equipment. The authority is quite broad and while it has some similarities to current regulations that were developed in the Clean Air Act, there are some differences, said Grundler.
“So, as a first step, we want to take stock of what our current regulations require, such as requirements for reclaiming refrigerants,” he said. “And then with [the public’s] help, we want to identify areas where there might be gaps or where we can make improvements in this part of our rules. Our history with ozone-depleting substances demonstrates that we can phase down or phase out certain refrigerants without abandoning equipment. I'll note that while we have authority to set regulations to reduce leaks and promote reclamation and reuse of HFCs, there might be other areas where nonregulatory approaches might be useful.”
As noted above, subsection (h) provides for the Agency to coordinate with other similar EPA regulations, such as the refrigerant management programs under Clean Air Act (e.g., sections 608 and 609). Section 608 applies to stationary refrigeration and air conditioning equipment, while 609 addresses the servicing of motor vehicle air conditioners.
“There are existing requirements in place that apply to HFCs and other substitutes, including servicing practices, recovery and recycling equipment, a venting prohibition, sales restrictions, technician training and certification, and recordkeeping,” said Chenise Farquharson, who works in the stratospheric protection division at the EPA. “What doesn't currently apply to HFCs and substitutes are the leak repair requirements, which are currently in place under 608 regulations, but they only apply to ODS refrigerants.”
As far as the current rate of reclamation of HFCs is concerned, Farquharson noted that over the last five years, there's been about a 6% growth of HFCs being reclaimed (data on HFCs weren't required to be recorded until 2017).
“Based on the 2020 data, we know that HFCs reclaimed were 1.6% of the estimated total of HFCs that were placed on the market. We want to see that percentage of HFCs being reclaimed increase, and that's one of the goals that we're hoping to accomplish with this rulemaking,” she said.
To help with the rulemaking process, EPA asked attendees (and the general public) to provide input on a number of questions (see sidebar). Several attendees noted that more education is needed in order to encourage greater recovery and reclamation of HFCs. But the problem, said Kevin Fay, executive director of The Alliance for Responsible Atmospheric Policy, is that in the United States, the industry is quite disparate.
“There are hundreds of thousands — if not millions — involved in equipment manufacturing, installation, and service,” he said. “There has to be a uniform view towards the importance of [reclamation] as part of our sustainable management of the use of these compounds as we phase them down, but also in the sustainable management of the substitutes that replace them. And that needs to become part of our core requirements in terms of service. We need to give consideration to what can be done to help incite that without encouraging massive over-regulation in this area.”
Leak detection and repair are also an important part of this rulemaking process, and Helen Walter-Terrinoni, vice president of regulatory affairs at AHRI, noted that there are new technologies that allow end users and technicians to pick up on a leaking system sooner rather than later.
“From a leak detection perspective, I think we're going to see with the use of flammable refrigerants, that there's going to be a much closer watch on that from a safety perspective,” she said. “And that may be something that could be brought into the thinking around leak detection and prevention from an environmental perspective as well.”
Alex Ayers, director of government affairs at HARDI, asked that EPA consider restricting who can purchase and install equipment in order to prevent refrigerant leaks.
“I think the moratorium on selling service gases to people without a 608 has been very effective,” he said. “We'd like to see that extended either through subsection (h) or through 608 to precharged equipment, making sure that only folks who are certified are doing the installation. Right now, frankly, anyone can buy a piece of equipment, it's just illegal for them to work on it in the field. If we prevent them from being able to buy it, it makes it harder for someone who doesn't have that certification from completing that installation. To us, that's just another easier method of enforcement of some of the existing rules.”
That may be something that EPA needs to consider, said Cindy Newberg, director of the stratospheric protection division at EPA.
“That's a very interesting thought,” she said. “We'll probably have to play that out a bit further to understand what that would look like. Generally, our perspective has been there are reasons why you would allow for field-charged equipment to be purchased by someone else but having refrigerant installed by a certified technician. That’s definitely something we’ll have to think on a bit more. We don't view this meeting as the last one, though, so we might gather a bunch of questions and come back and say, ‘Here's what EPA is thinking,’ and then gather thoughts and ideas and take the temperature on some of these issues.”
EPA plans to publish a proposed rule on refrigerant reclamation in summer 2023 and will schedule additional stakeholder meetings as needed.
Recovery and Reclamation Questions
To help with the rulemaking process, EPA is asking the public to provide input on the following questions:
- What should EPA consider in this rule?
- How do you define equipment?
- What aspects of the CAA sections 608 and 609 programs could EPA consider or build on (e.g., leak repair)?
- For leak repair, is a threshold meaningful? For example, currently 50 lbs. under section 608 program
- What are the best practices for leak detection and prevention?
- Should EPA consider technician certification under the AIM Act?
- Are there relevant trainings available for technicians to help address safety/flammability concerns, such as handling of mildly flammable and flammable refrigerants?
- Should there be a limit on the amount of virgin refrigerant that can be used in reclaimed refrigerant?
- What challenges and opportunities do reclaimers anticipate as HFCs are phased down?
- What are barriers to increasing the amount of refrigerant recovered and reclaimed?
- What are barriers to using reclaimed HFCs and substitutes for initial charge or servicing existing equipment?
- Should reclamation equipment be certified to meet a certain performance level?
- How is virgin material used by reclaimers (e.g., rebalance blends, address impurities)?
- To what extent are refillable cylinders used?
The public is invited to email comments to Annie Kee, firstname.lastname@example.org.