Senate energy bill falls apart amid dispute over coolants

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Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – It was supposed to be a bipartisan moment for the Senate.

But now a sweeping energy package promoted as a "down payment" on fighting climate change is falling apart amid a push to limit coolants used in air conditioners and refrigerators.

The energy legislation would boost efficiency and authorize billions of dollars to develop a wide range of clean energy options to limit greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. The measure also would enhance grid security and support efforts to capture and remove carbon emissions from coal and natural gas plants.

The bill is widely supported in both parties but stalled this week amid a dispute over a proposed amendment to impose a 15-year phase down of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, that are used as coolants in refrigerators and air conditioners. HFCs are considered a major driver of global warming and are being phased out worldwide.

Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana and Democratic Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware pushed for the amendment, which they said would give U.S. companies the certainty needed to produce “next-generation” coolants as an alternative to HFCs. Both men represent states that are home to companies that produce the alternative refrigerants.

The Kennedy-Carper amendment is supported by at least three dozen senators, including 17 Republicans who signed on as co-sponsors. But the amendment is opposed by Senate GOP leadership, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. John Barrasso, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Barrasso, R-Wyo., said the measure could add a layer of new federal rules on a patchwork of current or future state rules regarding HFCs. He wants language in the amendment ensuring that states will not impose stricter requirements than the federal rule.

Proponents said that states are likely to adhere to the federal standard, as they have done on other environmental issues, and that language preempting state action would set a bad precedent.