Washington Department of Ecology officials faced a variety of questions during a public hearing last week regarding a pending state ban on certain refrigerant products and the agency’s related management program to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Not all questions received immediate answers.
“We will have to do some digging … we’ll be looking into it,” Ecology’s Linda Kildahl said in response to one query during the Aug. 24 webinar hearing, which attracted more than 100 online viewers.
The reply was repeated a few times in various iterations by Kildahl, Ecology’s lead on “HFC” rulemaking, and other agency officials.
Ecology is tasked with regulating hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which are considered “super-pollutants” contributing to climate change if discharged into the atmosphere. To mitigate that possibility, the agency has developed proposed regulations scheduled for adoption in November and initial implementation in 2024. They will have wide-ranging fiscal and environmental implications for manufacturers, users and trades people dealing with stationary air conditioning, refrigeration and heat pump systems in Washington.
Some of the questions posed during the hearing were esoteric. One person asked if a refrigerant specified for a supermarket’s existing cooling system could still be used if the system is retrofitted and modernized, but the refrigerant is now on the state’s list of banned products.
Another question was more fundamental: what is Ecology’s definition of “a leak” in a refrigerant system?
After months of prior sessions with affected stakeholders and accepting informal comments, the agency’s formal public comment period closes Thursday. After that, Kildahl said, Ecology will review and respond to all comments in a document called a “concise explanatory statement.”
In 2020, Washington legislators passed a bill signed by Gov. Jay Inslee to prohibit the use of certain refrigerants. In 2021, the law was expanded to direct Ecology to adopt additional regulations and responsibilities. They aim to complement federal requirements in moving to more environmentally friendly refrigerants as part of an effort to reduce Washington’s greenhouse gas emissions by 95% by 2050.
Ecology is setting new maximum thresholds for the “global warming potential,” or GWP, of refrigerants, plus establishing a management program for businesses and industries with larger commercial systems currently in use.
Scores of buildings — supermarkets and other retail food outlets, cold storage warehouses, agricultural processing plants and industrial facilities, office buildings, apartment complexes, even ice skating rinks — could be subject to future state compliance, monitoring and reporting requirements.
“The new refrigerant management program will address the approximately 3.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent that leak into the atmosphere every year,” Ecology said in a news release issued in July. “That’s equivalent to what comes out of the tailpipes of about 740,000 cars. While HFCs pose a real risk to the climate, the good news is that safer alternatives are readily available. Many manufacturers have already made the switch.”
As proposed, manufacturers of stationary air conditioning units, both residential and non-residential, sold in Washington will need to comply with new regulations. However, the rule is not being applied to “mobile” air conditioning systems, such as A/C units found in trains, planes, and automobiles. Other thresholds were previously established in 2021 for small cans of refrigerant typically used to recharge A/C units in vehicles, and a ban was imposed on “non-essential” consumer products such as aerosol-propelled noise makers and cleaners used on electronics.
Ecology has proposed a registration and fee schedule for buildings and facilities based on a system’s refrigerant “charge size.” Systems with more than 1,500 pounds of refrigerant are considered large, would be subject to leak detection requirements, and would pay an initial $150 registration fee beginning in the first quarter of 2024 followed by an annual $370 fee. Refrigerant sellers and reclaimers also need to register at that time but are not subject to any related fees.
Medium systems, between 200 and 1,499 pounds of refrigerant, would pay a $170 annual fee starting in 2026. Small systems would be registered by 2028 with no associated fees.
According to Ecology, hydrofluorocarbons have a “high global warming potential” up to 15,000 times stronger than carbon dioxide itself. HFCs are considered among the fastest-growing category of greenhouse gas emissions because of, ironically, increased global demand for cooling and refrigeration. They are among the substances identified as contributing to depletion of the earth’s ozone layer — the thin stratospheric layer that protects life forms on the planet by absorbing much of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation.