An Open Letter from Richard Sims, President of the Florida Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Contractors Association (FRACCA)
We will be hearing a lot more about the HFC (R410A) phasedown and switch to mildly flammable R32; you may have noticed more solicitations in your inbox. I just got one telling me that I am going to love new restrictions on R-410A, switching to extremely expensive, less safe refrigerant and downgrading codes so it can be legal. It is good for business and virtue signaling according to its strongest supporters; the HVACR industry. Climate activists are not the ones leading this charge.
This story begins decades ago, but let’s pick it up from 2016 when the Obama administration had weaponized the Montreal Protocol (ozone treaty) for the war on climate change. The Kigali Amendments to the Montreal Protocol could not get past a republican held senate and so executive orders were issued to the EPA to use Clean Air Act authority over ozone depleting chemicals (ODP) to restrict use of chemicals with high global warming potential (GWP). Federal Courts overruled finding that the Clean Air Act only has authority over CFCs, HCFCs and chemicals with high ODPs; since R-410A and 134A have zero ODP they cannot be restricted by Clean Air Act. The rulings were appealed by Honeywell and Chemours (Dupont Spinoff) fervent supporters of an HFC phase out. They hold the patents for the replacement hydroflourolefines (HFOs). The judges wrote in their denial: “Industry intervenors are rent-seekers trying to use the government to foreclose their competitors’ products”. The judges called out the obvious attempt to fabricate a refrigerant monopoly and control prices.
Congress filed a bill that goes even further but could not get it passed during a Trump presidency; expect it to be perfectly suited for a Biden administration and Climate Czar John Kerry. At minimum, the American Innovation and Manufacturing Leadership Act ( AIM Act ) will pass easily in 2021. AIM has already attracted 16 republican cosponsors eager to score environmental points from a law that major chemical companies and climate activists have joined forces to support. At the head of the line are the few holding patents for the R410A (AC) and R134A (autos) replacements, followed by various HVACR trade groups that do not want to risk missing a seat at the regulatory table. All of the HVACR equipment manufacturers, HARDI, AHRI, ACCA and others are lobbying hard for AIM. ACCA says it’s inevitable
(I agree) and that they prefer it to a patchwork of state laws (I do not ). ACCAs’ claim that AIM is preemptive is not true; there is no preemption in the AIM act; California can still do whatever it wants.
Dissenting viewpoints do not come from within the HVACR industry. Some think focusing so much on non-energy related emissions is a mistake. It meets neither Bill Gates Net-Zero ( has GWP ) minimum nor Dr. Bjorn Lomborgs list of things that would make meaningful difference. It is not anybody’s climate priority for achieving measurable warming reductions. BP and Koch Industries are the most notable corporate opponents. Then there are those worried about the one thing that everyone agrees the AIM Act is guaranteed to accomplish. This will be the first republican endorsement of a law targeting specific molecules based upon their GWP. The GWP is the basis for carbon taxing plans ( such as the Green New Deal ) for power plants (CO2), ranchers (Methane) and your refrigerant (HFC). This has never happened before and opens many other regulatory doors. Politicians will have to explain why not to require the same for fossil fuels, bovines, and landfills? All have much higher climate impact than HFCs.
FRACCA does not endorse the AIM Act and does not agree that it will not adversely affect refrigerant prices. The sole purpose of the AIM Act is to increase prices. Honeywell and Chemours can manufacture all the HFOs they want without any new laws. The court was right; this is about stifling competition and forcing consumers to buy more expensive HFO products and intentionally inflates HFC costs (because of phase out) that they also sell.
The AIM Act will fail to create jobs as promised. Gains are evenly offset by job losses producing HFCs; they will simply shift to manufacture HFOs instead of HFCs. Likewise, jobs lost manufacturing HFC equipment will shift to produce HFO equipment. Although the name implies that the jobs will be American, the companies for whom this act creates a monopoly already have a terrible track record of exporting American jobs. They have long manufactured HFCs in China; most come from there and that’s where they first began manufacturing HFOs. Recently they added one US location. There is nothing that binds them to the US. It is possible for the AIM Act to create a global refrigerant monopoly based entirely outside of the US; there is nothing preventing them from leaving anytime they want.
The US is the greatest contributor to the United Nations Multilateral Fund to develop HFOs whereas China is still classified as a developing nation. US taxpayers are already subsidizing HFO development for China, Mexico and others. HFC phase out dates assure that the US, Canada and EU begin immediately whereas developing countries can continue with a competitive advantage for years before they give up HFCs ( at least they promise to when the time comes ). That has not worked out so well to date. China is repeatedly (and recently) caught still using R-11 in blowing foam; one of the earliest refrigerants banned. The amounts are enough that they have measurably affected stratospheric ozone restoration levels and are traced directly to east Asia.
The AIM Act does not promote energy efficiency as claimed. It is impossible to do that by limiting which refrigerants can be used. If these HFOs were more efficient, the AIM Act would not be needed; they would stand on their own from consumer demand. Climate scientists have told us for decades that the total GHG (greenhouse gas) impact of a refrigerant is less about its Direct GWP than its Indirect GWP. The Direct GWP is the warming potential of a refrigerant when leaked to the atmosphere and accounts for 5% to 10% of total impact. The Indirect GWP of a refrigerant is based upon the energy used by the appliance it serves over it’s service life and accounts for 90% to 95% of its total impact. The AIM Act only targets 5% to 10% of GWP impact and ignores 90% to 95% of the problem. The 5% to 10% direct GWP tackled by the AIM Act assume that the refrigerant will be released. But AIM does nothing new to reduce leak rates. It is impossible for an HFC to have any impact to the environment while contained within vessels and equipment and used as intended. It does nothing to force equipment manufacturers to start building coils that do not leak; it’s all about regulating installing contractors and end users.
Handling refrigerants results in only a few lbs. and ounces of losses; leaking coils add up to metric tons but manufacturers will still profit from their own leaks; contractors and end users still assume all costs. It would be interesting to know if equipment manufacturers would pull support for AIM if it held them accountable for environmental damages resulting from their leaking products. We have a metric to calculate the fines (GWP) that they already agree with.
The AIM Act claims that the HFC phaseout will occur with minimal impact and assures smooth transition. It relies upon the EPA to do this but offers little direction for how the EPA makes rules or timelines. The EPA can accelerate or extend timelines as they please. The EPA blessed us with one dumpster fire after another in the CFC/HCFC phaseout. They started by requiring approved recovery machines years before they finally agreed on standards for them. The same with refrigerant handling certification for our techs; it took years to find out if your certification was acceptable. The EPA moved timelines up and down dozens of times often created runs on CFCs and HCFCs with leaked information (remember the EPA letter?) and market instability. The EPA does for refrigerants what a pandemic does for toilet paper.
The EPA gave us “dry units” in the final hours of HCFC equipment production and disrupted a phaseout that we had planned on for decades. The result of EPA mismanagement of the CFC/HCFC phaseout gives us no confidence with HFCs. Politicians will take credit for environmental actions and then turn over the actual rulemaking to the EPA. A few industry insiders and climate activists will have influence over EPA policy and speak for the rest of us. The HVAC industry is fine with that and does not really want to do it any other way; perhaps it does not know how anymore.
Recently, Elon Musk ranked priorities for good regulatory policy. His first answer was that the default posturing should be to get out of the way and that regulators should be officials “not players in the game.” His second priority was more interesting: “after that, making sure that there are not artificial monopolies. What can happen over time is that they can get regulatory capture for large companies where they influence the regulators and legislators to favor their situation. The big companies don’t need the support but will generally try to work the system to establish a monopoly of some kind; we should be wary of that.” Musk was being interviewed about why he is leaving California for Texas.
FRACCA also knows that these regulations will further increase illegal activities and bolster black market services. California is always held as the regulatory example we should follow. California’s own research finds that 8% to 29% of required HVACR permits were pulled despite harsh sanctions against violating owners and contractors. Florida has seen similar results and refrigerant phaseouts have historically increased noncompliance. Barely any HVACR contractors have ever even seen an EPA official during the first 35 years of phaseouts. We know the results of unenforceable laws too well. FRACCA members abide by all rules and laws and are saving the planet in measurable ways, in broad daylight. Our experience has been that excessive regulation unfairly hurts legitimate contractors and their customers and encourages the same illegal activities that were targeted in the first place. FRACCA is confident these new regulations will come soon and is working to help our contractors and technicians safely transition to the mildly flammable refrigerants and new uncertainties.
Unlike the ozone restoration effort, we will never be able to see any result. We can log onto NASA.GOV anytime we want to monitor the ozone hole. We are even able to use our satellites to spot cheaters that persist in releasing large quantities of CFCs ( we just don’t do anything about it except keep paying them to stop doing it ). It is quite different this time. There will be no way to prove any of this had any positive effect. We will be offered expert estimates and computer models as evidence of success but that is all there will ever be. This one takes pure faith and never provides proof that it ever made any difference. But do not worry, soon enough we will be phasing out HFOs as well and we can do this all again.