On July 1, 2005 a dozen nations agreed under the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer to reduce exemptions for “critical use” of methyl bromide by 20% in 2006. Methyl bromide is a powerful ozone depleting chemical, 50 times more destructive to the ozone layer than chlorine from CFCs (chloroflurocarbons), the other major class of chemicals targeted by the treaty.

In 1987, sixteen industrial nations, including the U.S., agreed under the Protocol to end all use of methyl bromide by 2005, and developing countries agreed to end use in 2015. Instead, use of methyl bromide as a soil fumigant pesticide has increased in the U.S.

The 20% reduction appears to be an environmental victory, but in fact, U.S. consumption of methyl bromide rose so steeply in 2005 that the 20% “reduction” represents an increase over 2002-2004 levels. The U.S. walked into the negotiations for 2006 “critical use” exemptions requesting exemptions to use 37% of its 1991 baseline number (set at 25,528 metric tons), despite the fact that users in the U.S. in 2002 got by with less than 30% of the baseline. The Parties awarded the U.S. 32% of the 1991 base, and have indicated they will hold nations to 29% of baseline numbers in 2007. That represents a release in the U.S. alone, of 7,403 metric tons of methyl bromide into the atmosphere, a significant “loophole” that serves to prolong the hole in the ozone.

In 1994, the United Nations determined that elimination of methyl bromide was the most significant remaining action that nations could take to impact ozone depletion in the next decade. The Montreal Protocol has nearly eliminated CFCs and until recently, had sharply reduced methyl bromide use. By 2003, use and release of methyl bromide had fallen to 30% of 1991 baseline levels in many nations, including the U.S., which met that target in 2002, a full year ahead of schedule.

But in 2004 the Bush administration began to pressure for “critical use” exemptions (permission to continue using a substance) for methyl bromide, primarily as a pre-plant fumigant for tomato growers in Florida and strawberry producers in California. For the treaty’s first decade, critical use exemptions were confined to needs based on national security or medical uses where there was no alternative, but in 1997 the Parties to the Protocol allowed economic considerations to be a factor to justify an exemption for use of methyl bromide.

Environmental groups, including PAN North America, argued at the time that inclusion of economic challenges would open the door to increased use of methyl bromide as a soil fumigation pesticide. Unfortunately, that is exactly what has happened.

Instead of completing the methyl bromide phaseout as promised in 2005, sixteen nations, lead by the U.S., asked for and were granted exemptions for use of 16,050 metric tons in 2005. The U.S. exemptions totaled 9,500 metric tons and were by far the largest, allowing the nation’s use in 2005 to increase. In July 2005 the Parties recommended approval of 13,466 metric tons of methyl bromide for “critical use” in the developed nations in 2006. Allotments were modest for Australia (9.25 tons); Canada (2 tons) and Japan (75 tons). The United States was allowed 8,075 tons; and PAN has learned that the Administration is already working on a request to continue exemptions in 2007.

Another action taken by the Parties in July was aimed, according to David Doniger of Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), at the U.S. indulgence towards its users of methyl bromide. It mandated that each nation should “renew its commitment to ensure” that critical uses are, in fact, critical. Doniger argues that the U.S. has done exactly the opposite: “When the U.S. requested critical use exemptions in 2005, it made no distinction between critical and non critical users.

Everyone in the U.S. using methyl bromide in 2003 used 15% less than the subgroup of so-called critical users in 2005.” In December of 2004 NRDC sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its handling of the methyl bromide critical use exemptions; that case is likely to be heard in the fall.

For more information see the website for the UN Environmental Programme Ozone Secretariat, http://www.unep.org/ozone/index.asp.

The PANNA website contains extensive resources and fact sheets on methyl bromide’s use for soil fumigation: http://www.panna.org/resources/mb.html.

Sources: UNEP Report of Second Extraordinary Meeting of the parties to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, Advance Copy, July 1, 2005, p.4; Associated Press, July 2, 2005; Background, Critical Use Exemptions for Access to Methyl Bromide, Dept of the Environment & Heritage, Australian Government,
PANUPS, December 10, 2004, April 5, 2004; Methyl Bromide Briefing Kit, 1995,
Methyl Bromide Alternatives Network, PANNA website;