Man Charged With Smuggling Greenhouse Gases

Rare Rap Sheet

A California man has become the first person in the United States to be charged with smuggling greenhouse gases into the country, The Washington Post reports.

The accused, 58-year-old Michael Hart of San Diego, was arrested on Monday for allegedly bringing banned refrigerants called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) into the US from Mexico. According to a Department of Justice release, Hart hid the chemicals in his truck, which he then sold for profit on Facebook Marketplace, OfferUp, and other websites. He has also been accused of smuggling HCFC 22, an ozone-depleting substance.

Hart has pleaded not guilty. He is being charged with conspiracy, importation contrary to law, and sale of merchandise imported contrary to law. These include the first charges related to a 2020 act that bans the importation of HFCs without authorization from the Environmental Protection Agency.

"This is the first time the Department of Justice is prosecuting someone for illegally importing greenhouse gases, and it will not be the last," US attorney Tara McGrath said in the release.

"We are using every means possible to protect our planet from the harm caused by toxic pollutants, including bringing criminal charges," she added.

Bad Replacement

Hydrofluorocarbons are a group of human-made gases that were used to replace ozone-depleting chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were a popular refrigerant phased out under the 1987 Montreal Protocol. The use of HFCs quickly became widespread in the 1990s, according to the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, enabling an increasingly global demand for air-conditioning.

It turned out, however, that while HFCs are not harmful to the ozone, they are an extremely potent greenhouse gas, estimated to be thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide. As such, they have a considerable warming effect despite making up just two percent of all greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and have a short lifespan of 15 years.

In 2016, world leaders agreed to reduce the use and production of HFCs through the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which would not go into effect until 2019. The US then banned the import of HFCs without permission from the EPA through the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act in 2020.

Avipsa Mahapatra, climate campaign lead at the Environmental Investigation Agency, praised the government's crackdown. She warned that, if unchecked, black market HFCs could become a lucrative smuggling operation, mirroring what happened to CFCs in the 1990s following their ban.

"At that time, the street value of a cylinder of CFCs was nearly matching that of cocaine," she told WaPo. "It is critical that we stop the illegal trade of HFCs before we reach that state again. Our climate can't afford that."

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