The governors of Massachusetts, Maine and Rhode Island announced today programs to curb emissions of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), the powerful climate pollutants used as refrigerants, foam-blowing agents and aerosol propellants.
The three New England states will place prohibitions on a set of HFC-containing products and equipment, allowing a reasonable transition schedule for adopting climate-friendly alternatives.
Their announcement comes a month after New Jersey enacted similar HFC legislation. The Garden State was the fourth state to enact such legislation—following California, Washington and Vermont which adopted HFC prohibitions in 2019.
That brings the tally to 15 states so far, with another eight states are tackling HFCs under existing laws or pending bills: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, New York, Oregon, and Pennsylvania.
The rules being rolled out are consistent state to state, encouraging industry to offer the same products nationwide. Regulated sectors include commercial refrigeration, insulating foams, building chillers and aerosol products, among others.
Lack of clear federal guidance leads states to act
States started taking up HFCs in early 2018, with California leading the way. That was no coincidence. Use of fluorinated gases like HFCs and their ozone-depleting predecessors, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), has historically been governed by federal EPA rules since the late 1980s, under the Clean Air Act. EPA rolled out two HFC rules under its Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) program in 2015 and 2016. The SNAP program’s orderly schedule allowed adequate time for the industry to adapt and the rules enjoyed support from equipment manufacturers, chemical producers and the environmental community at large.
Federal progress was set back when two chemical manufacturers lagging in research and innovation challenged EPA’s authority. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned parts of the SNAP program in 2017, leaving a gaping hole that allowed continued use of HFCs even where climate-friendlier alternatives are already on the market.
The gap in federal regulation created uncertainty in the U.S. market, penalized the companies at the forefront of innovation, and gave up an opportunity for low-cost greenhouse gas emissions reductions across the country. Seeing the high opportunity cost of inaction, states started stepping in under their own pollution control authority.
To date, fifteen states have committed to act. All are members of the U.S. Climate Alliance, a bipartisan coalition of governors aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Once they complete adoption of the HFC restrictions (likely in the next 1-2 years), they will cover more than 35% of the U.S. population. As mentioned, many companies are planning to make their entire national product line to the same standards.
Federal policy is on the table once again
Bipartisan federal HFC legislation has been introduced in both chambers of Congress. This federal legislation provides a clear framework for a nationwide HFC phase-down (more here).
The HFC phasedown benefits both American businesses and the environment, which is why the bill enjoys support across the political spectrum and has spurred alliances between industry and the environmental community.
The Senate bill (S.2754) was introduced in late 2019 and now counts 32 cosponsors, 16 from each party. The House version (H.R. 5544) was introduced in January, and a hearing was held in the House Environment and Commerce Committee. That bill now has 20 cosponsors, 10 from each party.
The state regulations and the federal program play different roles
The federal bill focuses on gradually reduces the overall supply of HFCs—the amount produced and imported in the United States. The state rules focus on the demand side. They prohibit the use of some HFC-containing products where there are ready alternatives. State action thereby lays the groundwork for a smooth phase-down of HFC production and import.
HFCs are found in dozens of different applications in the air-conditioning and refrigeration sectors, in firefighting foams, insulation materials and medical applications. For some of these end-uses, replacing HFCs with another chemical is easy since the technology is already available—these are the uses required to transition under state rules.
But some sectors will have a harder time transitioning. Action on the easy-to-transition uses leaves more HFCs available for the harder cases, and gives them more time to transition.
If the federal bills become law, states will likely see less need for further regulating HFCs. But it is important that states be there to fill the gap if the federal government should falter again.
So, hats off to leaders in the three newest states: Massachusetts, Maine, and Rhode Island. The HFC action club continues to grow.