DC Appeals Court Restores a Portion of Obama Administration Climate Rule

Image: Refrigerant HQ

In 2017, in a case about a regulation banning the use of hydrofluorocarbons or HFCs issued by the Obama Administration, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. struck down one part of the rule saying it went beyond what was permissible under the Clean Air Act.  The Trump administration then interpreted that court decision to eviscerate the entire regulation, but yesterday the same court said that went too far and reinstated a portion of the rule.

Why This Matters:  HFCs are a very potent greenhouse gas – as we have written recently, they have a global warming potential of 1000 to 3000 times that of carbon dioxide, and their use has increased exponentially since they were introduced in 1990.  The first court ruling, written by then-Judge Brett Kavanaugh, held that the Obama administration rule should not have required the phase-out of ozone-friendly HFCs. Trump then said the whole rule had to go. States and environmental groups sued, arguing that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should be allowed to ban new HFCs as replacements for ozone-depleting substances because that was within their authority under the Air Act.  The Trump administration claimed they could not implement the rule piecemeal, but fortunately, the court reigned them in.  

HFCs Are Controversial

We recently explained that HFCs are used in air conditioners and refrigerants and are known as “super greenhouse gasses” — they were developed to replace a similar chemical refrigerant that was phased out by international agreement because they were causing a hole in the Earth’s ozone layer.  If HFCs are not phased out, their emissions will increase to 7-19% of all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and off-set most if not all the greenhouse gas cuts pledged by countries so far.   According to the NGO Environmental Investigations Agency, there are safe and readily available HFC-free technologies and more are coming on-line every year so that most uses could be phased-out relatively quickly if Congress did require it.  The Clean Air Act provides specifically that the EPA can regulate ozone-depleting substances and their substitutes. HFCs were a popular replacement for the prior chemical refrigerants known as CFCs, which were phased out for causing a hole in the Earth’s ozone layer.

Recent HFCs Flap

Because the Trump administration refused to implement the Obama rule on HFCs requiring their phase-out, states have begun to pass tougher laws to ban them.  Just last month, an energy research funding bill with bipartisan support was zipping through the Senate, but it ran into a roadblock when President Trump and conservative Republicans blocked an amendment that would have phased out HFCs because the Democrats refused to agree to language in the amendment banning states’ right to pass stricter standards on them. The state of California is working to put new standards in place that would meet a requirement that the state reduces its HFC emissions to half their current levels by 2030.  This would require changes by grocery stores, as well as alterations to commercial and residential air conditioning systems.

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