Refrigerant war rages in EU

UPDATE: Mercedes-Benz gets a temporary reprieve from registration ban in France

Published: August 22, 2013, 1:00 PM
Updated: November 22, 2021, 4:04 PM

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Mercedes-Benz won a temporary victory in its dispute with France over air-conditioning refrigerants on August 27, when France's highest administrative court, the Council of State, over-ruled the country's ban on registration on new Mercedes models using the older refrigerant, R134a.

It's just one battle, not the war, however. A final ruling will be left to the European Commission's executive body which has undertaken a full review of the situation.

It would be overstatement to suggest that France and Germany are on the brink of war again – but not by much.

An industrial dispute over the enforcement of a European (EU) regulation for automobile air-conditioning (A/C) refrigerant has escalated into an international incident involving the national governments in Paris and Berlin as well as EU headquarters in Brussels.

France has gone so far as to forbid the registration of some key new Mercedes-Benz vehicles using a disputed refrigerant, crippling the brand's sales in that country.

The refrigerant at the heart of the matter is called R134a. It was introduced in the 1990s as a replacement for the long-time industry standard, R12, which had been identified as a contributor to the depletion of the earth's ozone layer.

Since then R134a has been adopted as the common refrigerant for automobile air-conditioning systems worldwide and it is still used in almost all new cars and trucks being built today.

While it was an effective step in addressing the ozone-depletion issue, as environmental attention refocused on global warming and climate change, R134a was found to be a so-called greenhouse gas (GHG) with very high global warming index – in the order of 1400 times greater than that of carbon dioxide (CO2).

Consequently, a globalproject was initiated to find or develop yet another new A/C refrigerant that would be benign it terms of both ozone depletion and global warming.

Coordinated by the International SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers), that multi-year initiative led to the development, extensive testing and subsequent approval of a new refrigerant called R1234y4. (Yes, the esoteric nomenclature is highly confusing!)

Most of the world's major automakers were involved in that process and concurred that it was the best alternative overall – although some European manufacturers, including Mercedes-Benz, initially espoused the use of CO2 as a refrigerant.

While its technical qualifications were acknowledged and agreed upon, one of the concerns over the new refrigerant was that its production is controlled by a Honeywell-Dupont global monopoly – and, perhaps not coincidentally, that its price is substantially higher than that of the one it replaces.

Nevertheless, limited production of R1234yf began and a few automakers started to use it in their new cars. Cadillac was one of the first to do so, with the introduction of its XTS model.

Meanwhile, to help force the phase-out of the older refrigerant, the EU established a regulation mandating that all "new" vehicles introduced in that market must have a global warming potential of no more than 1000 times that of CO2, effectively banning the use of R134a.

There was a loophole, however, allowing vehicles already in production to continue using the older refrigerant until 2017, when full compliance would be required.

All seemed to be in place for an orderly transition.

But then, in September, 2012, Mercedes-Benz announced that it had carried out a series of additional in-house tests on the new refrigerant, above and beyond those already conducted annd its legally prescribed requirements.

In those tests, it released a high-pressure stream of the refrigerant onto hot components of a vehicle's exhaust system, pre-conditioned to simulate very high-speed driving on an Autobahn.

According to the company, tho tests showed that the refrigerant, which is difficult to ignite under laboratory conditions, can indeed be flammable in a hot engine compartment and that, when burned, it emits toxic hydrogen fluoride gas. Similar tests of the current R134a refrigerant did not result in ignition.

Based on those findings, the company served notice that it will not use the new refrigerant in its new vehicles but will continue to use R134a, while further researching CO2 as an alternative.

Not surprisingly, that unexpected announcement sparked a whole new round of testing and evaluation throughout the industry, resulting in a reaffirmation by the SAE study group that it found R1234yf to be safe for commercial use.

While the EU itself took no action against Mercedes-Benz for failing to comply with its mandate, France did. Mercedes' new A-class, B-class and CLA-class models built since mid-June cannot, as of now, be registered in that country, in spite of various attempts at resolution of the dispute.

Those modelsdo remain available in the EU's 27 other member states and existing models with R134a refrigerant continue to be available in France and the rest of the world, which suggests that the hard line against Mercedes' may be as much politically as environmentally motivated.

A recent report by Germany's Federal Motor Transport Authority (KBA) has fallen short of resolving the issue, effectively validating the position of both sides in the dispute.

In simple terms, it concludes that the new refrigerant does have a slightly increased fire risk but that it doesn't comprise a serious danger.

The European Commission now says it will work with the KBA and provide independent technical support to mediate the dispute. Pending completion of that task, Mercedes, has secured a hearing tomorrow, August 23, at France's highest Court, the Council of State to request a preliminary injunction quashing the ban on its new models. (SEE SIDEBAR)

Meanwhile, the standoff continues. We'll update the file as the soap opera continues to play out.

NOTE: Whatever the refrigerant, it is normally contained in a the closed-loop air-conditioning system and it can only impact the environment if it is released into the atmosphere as might occur in a severe crash. In normal air-donfitioning use, the refrigerant itself has no environmental impact.