BUSINESS
October 30, 2000
Volume 78, Number 44
CENEAR 78 44 pp.22-23
ISSN 0009-2347

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Regulatory Issues Heat Up For Blowing Agents

New EPA proposals may make life harder for the foam blowing industry

Michael McCoy

The complex process of phasing out ozone-depleting foam blowing agents could get even more difficult if a proposed change to government rules goes through.

In an unexpected response to a petition filed by fluorocarbon producer Atofina last year, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed accelerating the phaseout of three commonly used fluorocarbons used to blow polyurethane and other foams. Atofina and other companies are now protesting the proposal, calling it fundamentally flawed.

The chain of events leading up to the proposal started in 1995, when the longtime polyurethane foam blowing agent chlorofluorocarbon (CFC)-11 (CFCl3) was banned. However, waiting in the wings as a replacement was hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC)-141b (CH3CFCl2),a product with similar performance and handling attributes.

Making the transition even easier, existing CFC-11 producers such as Atofina (then Elf Atochem), Honeywell (then AlliedSignal), and LaRoche Industries were able to adapt their existing plants to produce the new product. They continued supplying the foam market with relatively few problems.

Although HCFC-141b has much less ozone depletion potential than CFC-11, it and other HCFCs were still seen as only stopgap measures until nondepleters such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) could be developed. Moreover, of the common HCFCs, 141b has the highest depletion potential; as a result, it was targeted for phaseout on Dec. 31, 2002, while other products had until 2010.

Last year, with the 141b phaseout date looming, the three U.S. manufacturers embarked on three very different courses of action. LaRoche, suffering from low prices in its main commodity chemical markets, halted a 141b alternative development program. The company eventually filed for bankruptcy and later shut down its fluorocarbon plant.

Honeywell had a license from polyurethanes producer Bayer allowing it to market an entirely new blowing agent, HFC-245fa (CF3CH2CHF2), to the foam industry. However, in order to justify building a plant, the company needed commitments from customers, and these were slow in coming. A planned 1999 start-up date came and went as customer negotiations dragged on.

Sensing Honeywell's troubles and lacking the necessary license to make 245fa on its own, Atofina took another tack: It submitted a petition to EPA seeking approval of three HCFCs--124 (CHClFCF3), 142b (CH3CClF2), and 22 (CHClF2)--as substitutes for 141b in foam blowing applications.

Appliance manufacturers, meanwhile, were starting to get nervous. They began to evaluate the three HCFCs on their own, preparing for the possibility that 245fa would not be available in time to meet the phaseout deadline. General Electric struck out on its own and adopted HFC-134a (CH2FCF3), known mostly as an automobile air conditioner, in a refrigerator plant in Alabama.

However, by October of last year, Honeywell was able to strike a deal with Maytag under which the appliance maker agreed to exclusively use 245fa in its refrigerator and freezer products. Honeywell subsequently signed a similar pact with Whirlpool and, in March, won board approval to build a 245fa plant in Geismar, La. The plant is slated to start up by July 1, 2002, in time--although barely--for customers to switch to the new product by the end of that year.

Following these developments, it came as no surprise in July of this year when EPA responded to Atofina's petition by rejecting the use of the three HCFCs in foam blowing. However, in a surprise move, the agency went a step further and proposed significant new reductions in the use of these HCFCs in foam blowing.

Specifically, EPA proposed moving the phaseout dates for HCFCs 142b and 22 from 2010 to January 2005. Further, these products and their blends--such as the 142b/22 mixture Atofina championed--wouldn't be allowed at all unless they were in place in customer foam operations by the time the rule is finalized.

Atofina is now up in arms about the entire proposal, while others involved in foam blowing are registering their concern about the new HCFC reductions.

Anhar Karimjee, an official with EPA's Stratospheric Protection Division, told attendees at the recent Polyurethanes Conference 2000 in Boston that the agency rejected Atofina's petition--and proposed the accelerated HCFC phaseout--because non-ozone-depleting blowing agents such as 245fa, 134a, and hydrocarbons are or will be available to replace the HCFCs.

However, Thomas Werkema, director of regulatory affairs for Atofina's intermediate chemicals group, maintains that existing non-ozone-depleting options aren't adequate to replace 141b in all applications.

He concedes that the appliance industry--which accounts for about a quarter of the 141b market today--is for the most part going to 245fa. Nevertheless, he maintains that this is risky because 245fa will be made by only one company--Honeywell. HFC-365mfc (CF3CH2CF2CH3), a promising blowing agent being developed by Solvay in Europe, is blocked from sale in the U.S. under the same Bayer patent. "EPA is creating a legal monopoly," Werkema says.

Likewise, Atofina acknowledges that the rigid insulation board sector, roughly 40% of the 141b market, seems to be moving away from fluorocarbons altogether. Atlanta-based Atlas Roofing Corp. is converting its six U.S. board facilities to hydrocarbon blowing agents, and its competitors are starting to follow. "They are dealing with the flammability issue in their plants," says Steven Galaton, business manager for foams and specialties in Atofina's intermediate chemicals group.

However, Galaton and Werkema claim that EPA isn't looking out for the third main segment of 141b users: companies that mix and apply spray polyurethane foam for roofing and other insulation applications. According to Galaton, most companies in this area are mom-and-pop operations that own a few trucks with equipment for mixing and applying the isocyanate and polyol halves of the polyurethane equation.

Because spray foam is applied outdoors under a variety of conditions, hydrocarbons aren't an option, he says, because of the fire potential. HFC-245fa is expensive--it's expected to sell for $2.50 to $4.00 per lb, versus about $1.00 per lb for 141b--and is largely unproven in the spray foam field.

"We have looked at every two-, three-, and four-carbon molecule with chlorine and fluorine trying to find a 141b replacement, and failed," Galaton says. "The bottom line is that there's no good answer for spray foam."

Honeywell, not surprisingly, disagrees. At the polyurethanes conference, Mary Bodgan, a chemist based at Honeywell's R&D center in Buffalo, reported that a blowing agent system containing 245fa and water--which, upon reaction with isocyanate, generates carbon dioxide--produced good roofing foams under a variety of application conditions.

Foam blown with water/carbon dioxide alone is a poor insulator, but Bodgan said that replacing some 245fa with water resulted in an economical blowing agent with only slightly compromised properties compared with 245fa alone. Moreover, because the 245fa/water combination offers a modest foam yield improvement over 141b, she claimed it actually comes out costing less than 141b.

David Williams, Honeywell's manager of blowing agent technical service and development, says construction of the new 245fa plant is on target to meet the market's needs in time for the 141b phaseout. He acknowledges that Honeywell went ahead with the plant on the strength of commitments in the appliance field, but says the company is increasingly confident that 245fa will have applications in a range of foam blowing applications. "Once we got comfortable in the appliance sector, we started to branch out," he says.

Although Atofina executives are objecting to the entire EPA proposal, at this point they would probably be happy if the regulations just remained as they were before Atofina filed the petition; indeed, at one point the company tried to withdraw the petition, but by then the regulatory ball was set in motion.

Now Atofina's efforts are focused on getting the agency to back off from its new restrictions on HCFCs, and in this sentiment the company is not alone. Companies and associations as varied as Dow Chemical, DuPont , General Electric , the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers , and even Honeywell have filed comments with EPA objecting to the proposed HCFC reductions.

DuPont, for example, objects that EPA is proposing changes that have nothing to do with the original petition by Atofina. DuPont calls the HCFC reduction move "an opportunistic step" by the agency that goes beyond the authority it is granted under the Clean Air Act.

Dow Chemical says EPA's change is "an abrupt and unnecessary departure from its previous course." Stephen Knis, an air technical specialist with the company, wrote the agency that adequate substitutes are not yet available to replace HCFC-142b in blowing Dow's Styrofoam brand insulation or to replace HCFC-22 in certain polyurethane systems. Knis concludes that EPA's decisions are largely based on a misreading of a United Nations report.

A comment period on the rule ended Sept. 11, and the ball is now in EPA's court. EPA's Karimjee told meeting attendees in Boston that the agency is now undertaking a 90-day review of the comments.

After that, the proposal goes to the federal Office of Management & Budget for a required 90-day review of its economic impact, then back to EPA for a final decision. Although Karimjee didn't signal how the agency would react to the industry comments, she did acknowledge that, almost without exception, those comments were against the newly proposed HCFC reductions.

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