Opinion

Washington’s War on Air Conditioning

Washington, D.C., is a heavily air-conditioned city. Summers here are hot and very humid, and each workday, an army of politicians and bureaucrats makes the trek from air-conditioned homes to air-conditioned federal office buildings and back.

Yet, despite their affinity for comfort cooling, these officials have imposed a number of measures that have raised the cost and jeopardized the quality of air conditioning for the rest of us.

The worst may be yet to come if the Trump administration doesn’t push back against new environmental treaty provisions that would require a costly redesign of residential air conditioners.

The latest threat to staying cool goes back to where it all started — the Montreal Protocol, a global environmental treaty ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1988. Concerns that the refrigerants then used in many types of air conditioners and refrigerators were leaking into the air and depleting the Earth’s ozone layer led to this agreement, which restricted their production and use and necessitated the development of substitute refrigerants that were earth-friendly but costlier.  Doing so raised the price of new air conditioners, but it also boosted repair costs for existing units as supplies of the now-restricted old refrigerants gradually dwindled and prices rose.

Then in January 2001, on President Bill Clinton’s last day in power, the Department of Energy tightened energy efficiency standards for new air conditioners by an ambitious 30 percent. The rule proved to be a disaster.

Prices for new units jumped sharply, probably even more than the DOE-estimated $335 increase and probably far more than most homeowners could ever earn back in the form of extra energy savings. The new units were much larger in size, which increased installation costs, as homeowners had to retrofit walls to accommodate the oversized components. This may help explain why some installations cost considerably more than the current average of about $5,000.

Now, the Montreal Protocol is back in play. Those ozone-friendly substitute refrigerants introduced in order to comply with the treaty (one manufacturer used the trademark “puron” for them) are now being targeted as contributors to global warming. The Obama administration made this its leading final-year climate priority.

At an October 2016 meeting in Kigali, Rwanda, the parties to the Montreal Protocol, urged on by the U.S. delegation, agreed to amend the treaty to curtail these second-generation refrigerants.

Joining the Obama administration and environmental activists in support of the Kigali Amendment are a number of opportunistic manufacturers, led by Honeywell and Chemours (a spinoff of DuPont), both of which have patented a number of compliant refrigerants that cost considerably more than the ones they hope to see restricted.

The exact dollar impact is hard to predict, but it should be noted that the most common new refrigerant currently retails for over $70 per pound compared to about $6 for many of the ones that would be curtailed under Kigali, and a home air conditioner can require up to 15 pounds.

“This may be one of the most flagrant examples of corporations trying to exploit climate fears,” said Dave Stevenson, former DuPont executive and director of the Center for Energy Competitiveness at the Delaware-based Caesar Rodney Institute.

In addition, some of the environmentally acceptable substitutes are flammable, so homeowners may face new risks to go along with the new costs.

Before it becomes U.S. law, the Kigali Amendment must be submitted by the Trump administration to the Senate for ratification. Both are getting the hard sell from lobbyists, who are pushing claims that it will create American jobs.

“The idea that costlier air conditioners and refrigerators will be anything other than a net drain on the economy is sheer fantasy,” said Dave Kreutzer, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

Trump was right to withdraw from the more sweeping Paris Climate Treaty because of the large costs it would have imposed on Americans. If the president wants to hold true to that track record, he should let the Kigali Amendment die.

It is time to drain the air-conditioned swamp.

 

Ben Lieberman is a senior fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C., and as a staff member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, he led the congressional delegation that observed the October 2016 Montreal Protocol meeting in Kigali, Rwanda.

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