A Bit of Good News for the Ozone Layer

The Parties to the Montreal Protocol are meeting in Paris again this week. The big item on their agenda is the effort to curb the super-greenhouse gases called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). I'll report tomorrow on their progress on HFCs.

But let's take a moment to note a milestone on curbing another chemical controlled under that excellent treaty.

This year marks the end of large exemptions for a dangerous ozone-destroying chemical called methyl bromide - an agricultural chemical then used mainly to kill soil pests in strawberry, tomato, and other vegetable-growing regions.

The Montreal Protocol began curbing the production and use of methyl bromide more than 20 years ago. Fruit and vegetable growers in Europe, Australia, and many other places rapidly reduced their dependence on methyl bromide - in most cases totally phasing out this chemical's use.

The one big exception, unfortunately, was the United States. To its credit, in 1997 the U.S. spearheaded agreement to phase out methyl bromide by 2005, with exemptions available for "critical uses." When agreed in 1997, governments and observers both expected these critical uses to be pinhole exceptions for small niche uses that might need a couple of extra years to be replaced.

In 2003, however, the Bush administration, catering to a handful of chemical companies and a small agricultural lobby, attempted to "break out" of the methyl bromide phase-out, by proposing massive critical use exemptions - originally covering more than 60 percent of the United States' total methyl bromide use.

NRDC, then the only environmental watchdog on methyl bromide in the Montreal Protocol process, blew the whistle on the Bush Administration's break-out proposal. We called it "the black mark on U.S. leadership in protecting the ozone layer."

We dug up obscure U.S. government data showing that three companies held huge stockpiles of methyl bromide, more than adequate to meet growers' needs without any new production. These stockpiles, it turned out, were dangerously stored in railroad tank cars on sitting on sidings in California and Florida.

The massive exemption request astounded other countries, most of which were well on the way to replacing methyl bromide. Eventually, the U.S. settled for exemptions covering 1/3rd of its total use - including for such "critical uses" as tobacco seedlings and golf course turf grass. For the remainder of the Bush presidency, the U.S. came back year after year for more exemptions, each time accounting for about 90 percent of all exemptions granted.

That began to change under the Obama Administration. Recognizing the availability of alternatives proven in other countries, and in fact the progress made by leading American growers, the U.S. rapidly ramped down its methyl bromide exemption requests.

And here is the milestone. This year the U.S. is seeking no exemptions at all for strawberries or other crops in 2016 and beyond.

We're not completely done with methyl bromide. The U.S. is still making a three-ton exemption request for use on a curious cured pork product. A few developing countries are also seeking small exemptions. And we still need to reduce methyl bromide use for "quarantine" purposes - rules to keep pests from traveling between countries on crop shipments or on wooden pallets and packages. The Montreal Protocol's technical advisors say there are currently alternatives for 40 percent of quarantine uses of methyl bromide.

But let's savor the moment. Methyl bromide use is more than 90 percent gone for the agricultural uses that dominated 20 years ago. And the ozone layer is healing faster as a result.