Washington’s Latest Attack on Air Conditioning

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Think air conditioning isn’t expensive enough? Then you’ll love a proposed amendment to the Senate energy bill from Sens. John Kennedy (R-LA) and Tom Carper (D-DE) that restricts the refrigerants used in millions of air conditioners on the grounds that they contribute to climate change.

That may sound like a strange priority coming from the Republican Kennedy, especially given that his home state’s scorching summers make air conditioning a necessity. But Louisiana is also home to several facilities owned by Honeywell, one of the two corporations that have patented a number of expensive alternative refrigerants likely to rise even higher if this measure becomes law. As for Carper, a Democrat, it certainly doesn’t hurt that the other company making pricey but greenhouse-friendlier replacement refrigerants, Chemours, is headquartered in Delaware.

It wouldn’t be the first environmental crackdown on cooling. Believe it or not, the class of refrigerants now being targeted as greenhouse gases, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), were once praised as Earth-friendly substitutes for earlier refrigerants blamed for the depletion of the ozone layer—the infamous “ozone hole.”

One compound in particular, called Freon-22, which had been the refrigerant of choice for home air conditioners since the 1960s, was banned by the Environmental Protection Agency in new equipment starting in 2010. Limited production of Freon-22 was allowed to service the older units designed to run on it, but even that ended as of January 1, 2020 and prices are up.

It has gone from around one dollar per pound prior to government restrictions to more than ten times that wholesale and even higher retail. A residential central air conditioner can require up to 15 pounds, so replenishing a system after a refrigerant leak can cost hundreds more than it used to.

If this new bill becomes law, the HFC refrigerants used in post-2010 units would also likely face similar cost increases.

Targeting HFCs was a late Obama administration climate policy goal, but one that was not accomplished before he left office. Obama had a two-pronged attack—a United Nations treaty provision called the Kigali Amendment that would restrict HFC production worldwide (though China and other developing nations would get generous extensions), and domestic EPA regulations prohibiting their use in several categories of new air conditioning and refrigeration equipment.

But Obama never submitted the Kigali Amendment to the Senate for the required ratification vote, and President Trump has thus far declined to do so. In addition, Obama’s EPA regulations were shot down by a federal court that said the agency has no authority to regulate HFCs based on their claimed contribution to global warming.

So now, proponents of restricting HFCs—a powerful combination of environmental advocacy groups and rent-seeking corporations led by Honeywell and Chemours—are pushing Congress to adopt similar measures through legislation.

The proposed restrictions on HFCs will raise future repair bills on the tens of millions of units that require them as supplies dwindle and prices rise. Brand new air conditioners would likely also go up in price as they are redesigned to use one of the new refrigerants under consideration by manufacturers.

The demise of HFCs would be great news for Honeywell and Chemours and their substitute compounds used in everything from car air conditioners to supermarket refrigeration equipment. Both companies produce some of these compounds in the U.S., but also in China, so this measure won’t be the domestic jobs bonanza its supporters claim.

 In addition, several of these new refrigerants are classified as flammable, so homeowners may face new risks along with the new costs.

The Democrat-controlled House has its own version of the refrigerant restrictions, which faces a tough opponent in Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK), who at a recent hearing, drew upon his years of experience running a residential air conditioners repair business to spell out in detail how badly it would hit homeowners.

Rather than pile on more red tape that boosts the cost of staying cool, Congress should work with the Trump administration to reduce those costs. One good pro-consumer move would be to allow limited production of Freon-22 for a few more years to service the older air conditioners that still need it. Another would be to reject any measures restricting the HFCs required for the newer units.

Summers are hot enough without costly policy from Washington getting us even hotter under the collar.