What are Fugitive Emissions and Why Should I Care?

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What are Fugitive Emissions and Why Should I Care?

using a meter to track fugitive emissions

What are fugitive emissions?

First of all – what are fugitive emissions?

Fugitive emissions are gasses, whether natural gas, carbon dioxide, or refrigerant-specific gasses, that are released into the atmosphere accidentally. They’re considered hazardous air pollutants and a threat to environmental sustainability, coming from pressure-containing equipment like storage tanks and systems that we see in the air conditioning, data cooling, and refrigeration industry (HVAC/R).

Not just for the oil and gas industry

Fugitive emissions are often talked about in terms of the oil and gas industry’s environmental footprint, or large energy and utilities-related facilities such as wastewater treatment facilities and power plants looking towards corporate sustainability initiatives. While the oil and gas industry and wastewater treatment facilities certainly contribute to fugitive emissions, refrigerants are in use in every building. Leaky storage tanks, poor leak detection processes, and faulty gas detection devices can all lead to fugitive emissions from HVAC/R systems everywhere. We can’t turn away from them – we have to face them head-on.

Fugitive emissions are Scope 1 emissions

HVAC/R fugitive emissions fall under Scope 1 emissions that companies report. Scope 1 emissions, according to the EPA, “are direct greenhouse (GHG) emissions that occur from sources that are controlled or owned by an organization.” Since HVAC/R equipment is often under the maintenance of a company, a fugitive emission that comes from such sources as leaky equipment will fall under Scope 1.

Fugitive emissions are widely researched

While we still have far to go in terms of reporting fugitive emissions in the refrigerant industry, environmental groups have long been aware of them. Groups from the Environmental Defense Fund to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regularly feature reports, articles, and research on these common, accidental emissions. They’re an important part of the total emissions story and are linked to climate change. Environmental science has been clear for a long period that gases including fugitive emissions that arise from industrial activities and an industrial setting are causing harm to the environment.

Fugitive emissions are important to track

Unforeseen mishaps lead to leaks, and leakage ultimately is a fugitive emission counted in sustainability audit questions. These unforeseen mishaps and leaks must be tracked, though, to make sure that we are addressing their harm to the environment. Here at Trakref, we advocate for better tracking of leaks, equipment, and the fugitive emissions and gases that they lead to. It’s the only way we can hold our industry accountable and mitigate risk. Simply put: a refrigerant leak is a fugitive emission whether it’s an accidental emission or part of a catastrophe.

Some fugitive emissions are volatile organic compounds

Some fugitive emissions also fall under the category of volatile organic compounds or VOCs.

While these aren’t necessarily most fugitive emissions, they are still important to understand. VOCs have high vapor pressure and low water solubility. While they can come from many sources, from paint to building materials, they can also come from leaks in facility equipment, ultimately impacting the environment.

The main issue with VOCs is their long-term health effects, especially when someone is in close proximity to them. These emissions, in addition to harming the environment, can cause everything from mild throat irritation to cancer in humans and animals. Keeping exposure to a minimum is crucial.
environmental scientists

Environmental Science is Clear

The science is clear – in a facility, refrigerant leaks are fugitive emissions, and they are ultimately a risk to the environment. Scientists study and report on the effect of fugitive emissions and other gases at regular intervals, publishing extensive data every few years that shows us that it is our duty in the refrigerant industry to act.

Changes in the climate will ultimately affect us all – whether we face a long-term health risk or loss of land, we are already starting to see its effects.

To help fight climate change, we must follow the appropriate course to reduce leakage. That appropriate course means the vast majority of companies should be using some form of a leak detection device to record and report on leaks and identify the fugitive emission sources that create these releases. This is important for all industries, from chemical companies and power plants, data centers, grocery, the cold supply chain, hospitals, offices, universities, government buildings, and residential buildings. Refrigerant leaks are a top source of climate change.

Scientific Assessment of the Ozone

Most people first became aware of refrigerants through the Montreal Protocol, the greatest effort to cooperate globally in history. Today the UN, along with the World Meteorological Association, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA, and the European Commission, regularly release their Scientific Assessment of the Ozone Report.

This report dives deep into what gases and other elements are causing air pollution. They mainly measure air pollution through the ozone, seeing how it has been harmed or is healing.

The last report that they came out with was published in 2018. In it, they reported the reassuring fact that there has been a decrease in ozone-depleting substances. They also note that the stratosphere is recovering, including the Antarctic ozone hole.

Not everything is well in the world of climate change, though. There has been an unexpected increase in CFC-11 globally, and the global emissions from HCFCs continue to increase. HCFCs are between 3-15% of total emissions from all long-lived greenhouse gasses.

How Refrigeration Plays a Part

HVAC/R equipment that contains refrigerant has increased 400% since the advent of the Montreal Protocol, however, the 2018 Scientific Assessment of the Ozone does have some good news- improvements in energy efficiency in HVAC/R during the transition to newer refrigerants can potentially double the climate benefits of the HFC phasedown of the Kigali Agreement.

On top of that, we know that we can always be doing better in terms of leakage and reducing leaks. It may seem like a lot of pressure to play a part in a large global issue like climate change, but we ultimately believe that pressure is good. We need to be doing our best as an industry, ensuring any facility is in line with global standards to ultimately reduce risk to our planet.
glasses and mallet on text book

Regulations Already In Place

While there aren’t too many specific regulations around fugitive emissions specifically, regulations around total emissions have existed in the US for a while thanks to the Environmental Protection Agency. These regulations focus on total emissions, from natural gas to accidental emissions, but are still important to review in terms of how they relate to fugitive emissions.

Clean Air Act

The 1970 Clean Air Act was put in place by the EPA to curb emissions in industrial settings and is the most important to understand.

The EPA knew these industrial settings were causing a risk to human health through faulty equipment that led to leakage, ultimately creating a dangerous hazard for the ozone. That’s why the EPA specifically refers to refrigerants and our industry’s equipment leaks in Section 608-609, addressing CFCs and other Ozone-Depleting Substances (ODS) – and soon, HFCs.

Section 608-609 required the EPA to develop programs to protect the stratospheric ozone layer, often damaged by refrigerant vapors escaping. Some regulatory programs created have included:

  • phase-out of the production and import of ozone-depleting substances, and now the phase-out of HFCs,
  • requirements for the service and disposal of stationary refrigeration and air-conditioning,
  • service of motor vehicle air-conditioning, and
  • labeling of products containing or manufactured with ozone-depleting substances.

Industrial facilities have since taken action and worked to reduce vapors escaping into the ozone, including fugitive emissions.

Is the refrigerant industry doing enough?

With regulations in place since the 1970s, and with research resoundingly saying that the need to reduce fugitive emissions is crucial, you might think that the refrigerant industry has been eager to get to work.

Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case. Fugitive emissions are a more immediate threat than ever.

At Trakref, we’ve observed that the vast majority of companies are just “winging it” when it comes to tackling fugitive emissions and other gasses that harm the atmosphere. Before they engage with Trakref, many companies aren’t reporting at regular intervals on their leaks and maintenance. They are also rarely translating their data into economic terms for others on their team to easily understand.

We know that curbing most fugitive emissions is important, and that’s we continue to advocate for better reporting to reduce this dangerous hazard.

Hope on the horizon with ESG reporting

While reporting on fugitive emissions has historically not been scrutinized, new standards are emerging. We are beginning to see their effect in ESG reporting. ESG reporting used to be something that only a few companies did – it was seen to be in the realm of idealists.

However, as time has gone on, more stakeholders are demanding ESG data. From customers to investors, people want to see that a company has sustainable practices.

As ESG reporting becomes more commonplace, C-suite executives are also getting involved. CFOs and others want data about fugitive emissions, gases, and other environmental factors shown in economic terms. Their bonuses are increasingly being tied to these metrics as well.

With these changes, we may see that more accurate reporting on fugitive emissions becomes increasingly mainstream. There may be a push to decrease the gases we send into the atmosphere through such sources as maintenance, better leak detection and gas detection devices, and upgraded equipment.

We Still Have Long Way To Go

Even with a better capture system in place to track data and report on it, there is still much work that needs to be done.

We recently looked at numerous ESG reports, and although refrigerant gases and their fugitive emissions are a top concern relating to climate, few reports actually mentioned a company’s refrigerant usage. Some mentioned other gases, methane usage, other unforeseen mishaps related to climate, or their electric fleets – but refrigerants were left out.

We see this as a flaw in the industry. Refrigerants are the number one source of climate change according to Project Drawdown. They’re causing more harm to the environment than any other source of carbon, so we need to be tracking them accurately and on a regular basis. Just like any other kind of reporting, there should be standards and regular reports should be expected – they should not just be something that a few “green” companies do.

Why Should you Care?

At the end of the day, though, are fugitive emissions really that important to track? Will they really make that much of a difference in the environment?

At Trakref, we’d answer with a resounding YES! Refrigerant emissions are responsible for nearly 600 million tons of equivalent CO2, which is 3x greater than all the CO2 emitted from passenger air travel in the US. We think that everyone in the refrigerant field should be following a method involving tracking fugitive emissions and making sure that there are fewer of them in the atmosphere.

We’re already seeing the work of climate change on our environment, and we may only have six or so years left before we see its worst effects. While it may seem like a huge undertaking to save our atmosphere, it’s an undertaking that we all must be in together, especially in the HVAC/R industry.

Tracking fugitive emissions is just one step in bettering our planet. HVAC/R professionals have a huge role to play. We’re working with some of the most harmful emissions to the ozone, so it’s on us to have a better understanding of what we’re using and what is leaking.

The First Steps

We know that a business-as-usual approach won’t work to tackle fugitive emissions and their effect on the climate. Business as usual has been to largely ignore any striving to reduce fugitive emissions by allowing risk to continue.

If you’re at a company that’s ready to work towards curbing fugitive emissions, one of the first things you can do is to get organized and start tracking. Again, business-as-usual won’t work. Don’t rely on paper logs or confusing Excel spreadsheets. Make sure you have sophisticated data and processes in place.

Trakref is a great solution for this. Our software’s easy-to-use workflows and the ability to have unlimited users make sure that everyone is on the same page. This way, you aren’t bogged down in paperwork or confusing databases. You’ll be able to track leaks, fix equipment as needed, and ensure that you’re on your way to better compliance.

Look at your equipment

Incessant leaks are never good for the environment and ultimately lead to fugitive emissions. Make sure that you’re doing what you need to have your equipment running smoothly. Decide what to do with leaky equipment that is spewing gasses – will you keep on repairing them or is it time for an overhaul?

Trakref is here to help

In our 25+ years, part of that solely a software corporation as an environmental software provider, we’ve helped companies of all sizes operationalize compliance and sustainability with their HVAC/R assets including better tracking of their fugitive emissions through our regulatory compliance software and environmental compliance calendar software. We’ve told you all about fugitive emissions, why they’re harmful, and what you can do as an owner, operator, or HVAC/R professional to have a better handle on them – now it’s your turn to step up and take the challenge.

With Trakref, our workflows help you easily manage your equipment and work through refrigerant tracking processes, including identifying leaks so you can be on top of equipment problems before they become a mess.

You can also create reports with our easy reporting tool. This way, everyone on your team is on the same page when it comes to tracking fugitive emissions and making sure that equipment is working properly to avoid leakage.

If you’re ready to join us in the fight against fugitive emissions and want to advocate for better reporting of them, sign up for a free demo today.
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