Sell Me Your Climate Bombs : Planet Money There are tanks all over the U.S. that are like little climate change time bombs, ticking away. Today on the show, getting to them before they go off. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.

Sell Me Your Climate Bombs

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

SARAH GONZALEZ, HOST:

When we think about the things that are causing global warming, that are heating up the planet - right? - we usually think about things like carbon dioxide coming out of factories, smokestacks or car exhaust.

ALEX BLUMBERG, HOST:

But there's this other greenhouse gas out there that's even more dangerous. It's lurking in garages and sheds all over the country. It's a kind of invisible threat that most people don't even think about - except these guys.

TIM BROWN: So I'm Tim Brown, and I'm driving in Illinois with my partner, Gabe Plotkin.

BLUMBERG: Tim and Gabe are driving an SUV through downstate Illinois - flat, straight roads, nothing but corn and soybeans as far as you can see. And they're on a mission.

BROWN: Hold on just a minute. I've got to give Gabe the address. It's 903...

GONZALEZ: They're on a mission to track down some of this invisible threat.

BLUMBERG: All right.

BROWN: Let's go collect and destroy greenhouse gases. That's very exciting.

BLUMBERG: (Laughter) And they're letting us tag along by video.

BROWN: Look at this. We're on a field trip together.

BLUMBERG: Tim and Gabe pull into a gas station at one of those rural intersections - you know, the kind where it's two perpendicular roads meeting in the middle of acres and acres of corn. And waiting for them there in the parking lot in a red Jeep Renegade is the guy they came to meet.

BROWN: And there he is. Let's - why don't you just go down the street for a minute, Gabe, so we - there he is, right there.

BLUMBERG: The guy in the parking lot is holding one of those big metal canisters. If you've ever cooked with a propane grill, you know the kind - circular, a couple feet tall. And inside that canister is a chemical called R-12 refrigerant.

GONZALEZ: R-12 refrigerant and other kinds of refrigerants, like R-22 and R-502 - they make things cold. This is what a refrigerant is. So this stuff was in old refrigerators, in old air conditioners, in the A/C in old cars. But the chemicals keeping us all cool turned out to be making the planet a lot warmer. These refrigerants have up to 10,000 times the warming effect of regular old carbon dioxide. So the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, has banned the production of all kinds of refrigerants. New cars, new refrigerators - they cannot be made with this stuff. We have to use newer, safer versions of refrigerants now.

BLUMBERG: But the old stuff is still out there in tanks, sitting in car repair shops or in people's garages - you know, people who like to tinker.

GONZALEZ: And these tanks - they're rusting, which is a big problem because when these tanks rust, the gas inside can leak out into the atmosphere. So these tanks - they're like little climate change time bombs just ticking away.

BLUMBERG: And Tim and Gabe - their mission is to get to these time bombs before they go off.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT J. WALSH SONG, "I'M NOT GOIN DOWN")

BLUMBERG: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Alex Blumberg.

GONZALEZ: And I'm Sarah Gonzalez. Alex Blumberg started PLANET MONEY. Thank you for all of our jobs, Alex.

BLUMBERG: (Laughter) No, thank you. Thank you for carrying on the proud tradition. Yeah, I mean, Adam Davidson and I started many, many years ago, and I worked at PLANET MONEY for five years. I did a ton of stories. And now I have this new podcast called "How To Save A Planet," where every week, we look at different solutions to the climate crisis. And I came across this refrigerant story, and I thought, this is perfect for PLANET MONEY.

GONZALEZ: How To Save A PLANET MONEY?

BLUMBERG: (Laughter) Exactly.

GONZALEZ: Today on the show, Tim and Gabe and their mission to rid the world of one of the worst greenhouse gases, one remote pickup at a time.

BLUMBERG: It's a story that involves danger, subterfuge, cash transactions, nudity and, of course, nerdy economic plans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT J. WALSH SONG, "I'M NOT GOIN DOWN")

GONZALEZ: OK, so there are countless outdated old refrigerant tanks scattered around the country. And Tim and Gabe say that the problem is you cannot just dump these tanks in the trash.

GABE PLOTKIN: If you wanted to take it to a dump, they're not going to take it.

GONZALEZ: They'll say, like, no, no, no. That stuff's, like, hazardous material. We don't want it here.

PLOTKIN: It's hazardous material. The only thing you're allowed to dump there is the empty tank when it's all gone. So you're really stuck. It sits there on your shelf. You have no use for it. And it's eventually going to leak through these cylinders and cans into the atmosphere.

GONZALEZ: If you're a professional, like an auto mechanic or an HVAC installer, or if you're just one of those tinkers who hangs out at AutoZone, you might have one of these bad banned canisters. And you could pay to safely dump the chemical out, but only a few places in the U.S. will even do it. And it's expensive. That's why there are canisters of this stuff just sitting in old garages, rusting away and leaking.

BLUMBERG: Leaking a greenhouse gas that is thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide. And getting rid of refrigerants is one of the most important things we can do to address climate change, according to a leading climate solutions organization called Drawdown, which is why Tim and Gabe have come all the way to this gas station in middle of nowhere, Ill., to meet a man in a red Jeep Renegade named Jeffrey (ph).

BROWN: Hello, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY: Yup.

BLUMBERG: Jeffrey is standing next to a 2-foot-tall canister of refrigerant that people might recognize by its common name, Freon. Tim, in fact, recognizes the brand name, Dupont Igloo.

BROWN: So what is it? This is Dupont Igloo, Freon-12. So where did you - where did you find the material?

BLUMBERG: Jeffrey says a friend gave it to him years ago. Tim asks him if he was in the HVAC business and Jeffrey says, no, but my friend was. He said he got the refrigerant because he figured maybe he'd use it in the A/C systems of antique cars that he was thinking about rebuilding, but he never got around to it.

BROWN: How long have you had it?

JEFFREY: I don't know - about maybe 18, 19 years. It's been sitting on the shelf in the shop.

BROWN: And then how did you hear about us?

JEFFREY: I think it popped up on my Facebook one day.

BROWN: Oh, really? Like a Facebook ad.

JEFFREY: Yeah, just out of the blue.

GONZALEZ: A Facebook ad popped up that said, we pay good money for your old refrigerant. Jeffrey thought, I have some of that, answered the ad, and now here we are.

BLUMBERG: Tim and Gabe take a sample from Jeffrey. They do a couple calculations where they add up the weight of all the refrigerant, and they have Jeffrey sign some forms.

BROWN: You're signing here that you're - that this is your material now and you're handing it over to us. You're also attesting that it was sourced within the United States and not from a U.S. government or a Native American tribe. Is that correct?

JEFFREY: Correct.

BROWN: OK.

BLUMBERG: And then Gabe pulls out a wad of bills and starts folding them one by one into Jeffrey's hand.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER RUSTLING)

PLOTKIN: I'm going to have you sign here and then give you a receipt for the material.

JEFFREY: Where do you want me to sign, right here?

PLOTKIN: At the bottom there, just so - confirm that you got the money.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER RUSTLING)

BLUMBERG: Except for, you know, the signing of the receipt and everything, it feels almost like a drug deal - a cash transaction in this dusty, remote middle of nowhere. Tim wouldn't tell us exactly how much money changed hands, but he said it was in the low hundreds.

GONZALEZ: And yet, this is Tim and Gabe's legitimate business. Their company is called Tradewater. And they make pickups like this of all sizes, from a 1-pound can the size of a spray paint bottle to a 40,000-pound job they did a while back where they vacuumed the refrigerant out of an old industrial cooling system.

BLUMBERG: After a bit of chitchat, Tim and Gabe wrap up with Jeffrey. Jeffrey tells them if he hears of anyone else with spare refrigerants, he'll send them their way.

BROWN: Great. Well, Jeffery, how was that? That was painless, wasn't it?

JEFFREY: Yep.

BROWN: All right, so if you find any more, you know where to call. We'll come meet you out here.

JEFFREY: If I hear of somebody that's got one, I'll let them know you guys are buying it.

BROWN: All right, great.

JEFFREY: A smooth transaction, and you're paying good money.

BROWN: All right. We'll take good care of it for you.

BLUMBERG: So, Sarah, did you hear that? Tim just said, we'll take good care of it for you.

GONZALEZ: Yeah.

BLUMBERG: Well, me and my "How To Save A Planet" co-host were listening in on this deal, of course. We're on FaceTime with them. My co-host's name is Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. She's a scientist. And she and I asked Tim and Gabe about that particular comment.

AYANA ELIZABETH JOHNSON: When you said, we'll take good care of this for you...

BLUMBERG: Because you aren't going to take good care of it. You're going to destroy it.

BROWN: Exactly.

JOHNSON: Does he know that?

BROWN: Probably not. We don't really - we don't really talk about that very much.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. They transfer all the gas from the little tanks they collect into a huge tank that looks kind of like a missile. And then they drive that missile-looking tank to a fancy destruction facility.

BROWN: Essentially an incinerator. It's a permitted hazardous waste rotary kiln incinerator.

GONZALEZ: So you burn it?

BROWN: We burn it.

GONZALEZ: You burn it, OK (laughter). You're, like, setting it on fire.

BROWN: We are.

GONZALEZ: And then do you just see gas in flames? Is that what it looks like?

BROWN: Yeah. We don't generally watch it being burned, but if you would see it through their sort of view window, a flame - yeah - a big, bright flame.

GONZALEZ: Incinerating refrigerants at this special facility actually neutralizes most of the dangerous stuff; 99.99% of the bad stuff doesn't go out into the atmosphere - time bomb diffused.

BLUMBERG: Which if you're trying to address global warming, this is a fantastic thing, right? After all, this is Tim and Gabe's mission. So why don't they tell their customers about it? Well, Gabe says their customers aren't always on board with that mission. In fact, a lot of them don't even believe global warming is real.

PLOTKIN: This is a - maybe a farce that's been pulled by the EPA or the U.N. And so people will hang up and say, I'm not going to sell to you. I'm going to find someone else who's going to use this the way it was meant to be used.

BROWN: You know, some people are really attached to their refrigerant, so we don't generally advertise that we're going to destroy it because we just never know if somebody - if that will make people uninterested in the deal.

JOHNSON: That's interesting because it seems like...

BLUMBERG: That, again, is my co-host, Ayana.

JOHNSON: ...It's all over your website, right? Like, your website makes it pretty clear why you're doing this. And if people are finding you through Facebook ads, wouldn't they already know?

BROWN: Are you on the Tradewater website?

JOHNSON: Yeah.

BROWN: So when we do these transactions, we actually use a different name, a doing business ad called Refrigerant Finders.

JOHNSON: I love this so much.

BROWN: So if you go to Refrigerant Finders' website, you will see a different framing of what we do.

BLUMBERG: The homepage of the Tradewater website has the words, reducing the world's carbon footprint, in big letters, huge font over a background of leafy green fern leaves. The Refrigerant Finder website - there are no leaves. There's no mention of climate change. It just says, we buy your old refrigerant, and it has pictures of men in work boots carrying around rusty canisters.

JOHNSON: This is super stealth.

BROWN: So...

JOHNSON: This is like collecting refrigerants by any means necessary.

BLUMBERG: (Laughter).

JOHNSON: Are you the Malcolm X of refrigerants? Yes or no?

BROWN: I couldn't possibly answer that.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: That's probably smart.

BLUMBERG: Wow.

JOHNSON: Does it feel like a bigger win when you do a pickup from someone who's a climate denier?

PLOTKIN: It does feel like a win, for sure. I'm sorry. I went too far here. That's what happens when Tim navigates.

BLUMBERG: Ayana and I hung out with Tim and Gabe for a couple hours as they drove around not telling people they're saving the planet. And Tim told us that sometimes, these pickups can put them in bizarre situations, like this one time he and a colleague were doing a pickup deep in rural Louisiana.

BROWN: Way out in the country somewhere, like, down a dirt road. It was an old house in the woods. Eventually, somebody came out of this house and told us to come inside. So inside we went. And then we ended up in the bedroom of this man. As I recall, not only did he have no pants on, but he also had no shirt on. He was nude. He was nude. And he was - and then he said, go in the closet.

(LAUGHTER)

BROWN: And opened up the door of the closet, and what was there was this 30-pound cylinder. And so we did the whole transaction just like what you heard now, except the man had no clothes on.

(LAUGHTER)

BROWN: Eventually, he signed the receipt and all of that. I just bought Freon from a nude man.

BLUMBERG: So, Sarah, besides the odd encounter with a nudist, here is another strange part of what Tim is doing. Tradewater, his company, is a for-profit business, not a nonprofit. It's not a government service. And it's not just a mom and pop operation. It employs 30 people, paying salaries, transportation costs, buying refrigerant from people. And those aren't the only costs.

Do they - do you have to pay to have it destroyed?

BROWN: Yes, we do. We pay. We pay the destruction facility on a per pound basis to destroy it. And we generally destroy up to, you know, 20,000 or 30,000 pounds at a time.

BLUMBERG: So far, all I'm hearing are costs. Like, so far, all I'm hearing are the money you're spending. How do you guys get paid?

BROWN: How do we make money? Well, what we do is our work of collecting and destroying greenhouse gases results in carbon offset credits. And then we sell those carbon offset credits to buyers.

BLUMBERG: And if I know anything about making podcasts, I believe this is the part of the story where we have to do a quick explainer (laughter) about what it is you're talking about.

BROWN: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL ALEXIS PEMBERTON'S "DOCTOR DIZZY")

GONZALEZ: Coming up after the break, what it is Tim's talking about - how you can actually make real money hunting down greenhouse gases, one tiny tank at a time.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL ALEXIS PEMBERTON'S "DOCTOR DIZZY")

GONZALEZ: So Tim and Gabe are getting paid to destroy greenhouse gases because of this thing called a carbon offset credit. These credits are a way to get paid for saving the planet.

BLUMBERG: And these credits, these I'm-saving-the-planet credits, they exist in a lot of states, but Tim and Gabe mostly go through the one in California, the California cap-and-trade system. And here's how that system works. California has placed a cap on how much pollution businesses in the state can emit.

MEREDITH FOWLIE: So refineries, cement producers, food processors - there's a cap on how much all of Calif. - all those producers in California can emit.

BLUMBERG: Meredith Fowlie is an environmental economist at UC Berkeley.

GONZALEZ: And you're like a cap-and-trade expert.

FOWLIE: I think a lot about cap-and-trade.

GONZALEZ: Meredith says that this year, California is only allowing 334 million metric tons of new greenhouse gas emissions. That's the cap, which, by the way, is what the emissions were in California back in 1990.

BLUMBERG: And every business over a certain size in California that wants to emit carbon has to get permission from the state. They have to get pollution permits - one permit for every metric ton of carbon they want to emit.

FOWLIE: So 334 million metric tons of carbon permits, and those permits are tradable on a permit market.

GONZALEZ: And by tradable, we mean sellable, like at auctions, through brokers. The price changes based on demand, but right now, it costs about $17 to emit one ton of carbon dioxide.

BLUMBERG: So that is the cap-and-trade system. There's a cap on overall emissions and permits that you can trade. And to give you a very basic idea of how this works in practice, let's say I'm a cement producer in California. I've always wanted to be one. And I need to emit 2 million tons of carbon dioxide this year to make my cement, so I need 2 million permits, but I only have 1 million permits, so I need another million.

GONZALEZ: And let's say I'm a food processor in California. I was tired of buying millions of dollars' worth of these pollution permits, so I decided to redesign my whole system so that I emit less carbon. So it just so happens that I have pollution permits left over, Alex. You can buy mine.

BLUMBERG: And technically, I'm buying them from an exchange, which you've sold your permits to already. But, yes, this is fantastic because with these permits, I can now pollute more, although they did cost me $17 million.

GONZALEZ: And this is really great for me because I just got paid $17 million for polluting less.

BLUMBERG: And proponents say this is the whole point of cap-and-trade. It costs me to do the wrong thing, and it pays you to do the right thing.

GONZALEZ: So, yeah, those are the two options. Big polluters like us can either pollute less to comply with cap-and-trade, which is what I did, or we can buy permits to pollute more.

BLUMBERG: Like I did.

GONZALEZ: But there's a fun third option for polluters like us. We can buy this other thing that allows us to pollute. It's called a carbon offset credit. And here's what a carbon offset credit is. Basically, people in California can go out and look for ways to prevent climate change - sometimes even people outside of California can do this - and the state will give them these credits, these carbon offset I-am-saving-the-planet credits that they can then sell to polluters like us.

BLUMBERG: And because polluters like us are paying for these credits, it creates this whole market for people - like, random people - to look for ways to save the planet.

GONZALEZ: Like guys driving around in the middle of America.

FOWLIE: Like guys, yes.

GONZALEZ: So by California saying, yeah, if you get your hand on refrigerants and destroy them, we're going to give you some money for that...

FOWLIE: Yup.

GONZALEZ: ...People are like, well, I guess I'll get in my truck and go find some refrigerants and destroy them.

FOWLIE: If it makes sense - right? - if it pays well, and if it covers their costs.

GONZALEZ: And destroying refrigerants, which is what Tim and Gabe are doing, this is just one way you can get paid through carbon offsets. Some states let you do all kinds of weird things.

FOWLIE: So I'm not a cow scientist, but I understand that there's things you can feed cows so that they burp less and release less methane into the air. And so if you can pay a farmer to feed a cow something that will reduce its burps, that's a carbon offset.

GONZALEZ: That's an offset - less burps.

FOWLIE: That's an offset.

GONZALEZ: So Tim and Gabe could be getting cows to burp less, or they could be planting more trees. That's another offset. That's actually a more common offset. Meredith says 85% of offsets in California are tree-related.

BLUMBERG: Now, we should say not any yahoo off the street can earn offset credits. It's actually very official. There's thousands of pages of paperwork that you have to fill out to prove that what you're doing actually works. So, for example, with trees, someone has to actually fly around and verify that new trees were planted and that they weren't cut down too soon. And no matter what your offset is, you have to prove that the offset would not have happened without you, which Meredith says is kind of impossible, but you have to at least try.

So, like, Tim and Gabe - they have to show that the refrigerants they're collecting would not have been destroyed if it weren't for them. And that is really important because otherwise, an offset credit is kind of just a loophole for companies to pollute more.

GONZALEZ: And then, of course, anytime you create a market, like this market for carbon offset credits, you have to worry about the unintended consequences.

FOWLIE: There was a controversial situation where refrigerants - and it was a different kind of refrigerant. This was HFC-23, which is a really powerful greenhouse gas, and it's produced as a byproduct when you make refrigerants. So because it was so lucrative to earn offsets by destroying HFC-23s, you had some companies in India and China who realized it actually made sense to make more in order to get paid to destroy them (laughter).

GONZALEZ: So they were like, we can make money by making more of this bad stuff; let's just make more, and then we'll just keep getting paid to destroy it.

BLUMBERG: The stuff we're making.

FOWLIE: Yes.

BLUMBERG: (Laughter).

FOWLIE: It just does remind you that there can be some pretty perverse and unanticipated outcomes.

BLUMBERG: And because I worked for so long at PLANET MONEY and I understand - if there's one thing working at PLANET MONEY tells you, it's that incentives matter. And so I actually asked (laughter) - I asked Tim this very question about, you know, you're basically getting paid to destroy this thing, but, like, what you're doing is you're creating a market for this thing. And so are you worried that people will do just what you described, Meredith? And he was like, have you seen our customers (laughter)? Like, they're not...

(LAUGHTER)

BLUMBERG: It's just, like, dudes in garages all across, like, Middle America. They're not, like, making this in labs to sell to me.

FOWLIE: And if that's the case, that's exactly what you want, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR BLINKER)

BLUMBERG: Back on the road with Tim and Gabe, we're on our way to meet another one of those customers. Tim and Gabe actually make a decent amount of money selling offset credits to polluters - millions of dollars a year in revenue - which is good and all, but honestly, not what they were hoping for. They started the company 10 years ago and thought they would've found all the bad stuff by now.

PLOTKIN: It's worth pointing out that in the past couple of years, we have collected between 150,000 and 250,000 pounds of refrigerant per year, mostly in small cylinders and cans.

GONZALEZ: And remember, refrigerants are up to 10,000 times more potent than CO2, so 250,000 pounds of refrigerant can be over a million tons of CO2 - tons. Tim and Gabe say it's hard to know exactly how much warming they've prevented. But just think about what they've collected so far today.

BROWN: It's probably about 300 tons of CO2 in the back of the car right now.

JOHNSON: That's some potent stuff back there.

BROWN: It is very potent. The evidence is rattling around in the back of Gabe's car now.

JOHNSON: How long is it going to take you to find it all...

BLUMBERG: Yeah.

JOHNSON: ...And destroy it all?

BROWN: All we can tell you is that the more we look, the more we find. So there's a lot of it out there still.

BLUMBERG: It's late afternoon now. We're back on the highway toward Chicago, heading to the last pickup of the day.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)

BROWN: We'll pay you on the 18 pounds - that. And then you have the three cans as well.

BLUMBERG: They're picking up a tank of R-12 and several canisters of R-22 from a guy named Dennis (ph).

BROWN: All right.

DENNIS: Thank you, guys.

BROWN: Thanks. Really good to meet you. Thank you very - all right, well, take care of yourself. Bye-bye. Yeah, give us a good rating.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEIGH MCALLISTER GRACIE SONG, "LET'S START A MOVEMENT")

BLUMBERG: Not long ago, Tim and Gabe got a tip that there's a lot more old refrigerant out there in places they hadn't been looking, in places outside the United States - in Ghana and Senegal, Argentina and Guatemala. So that - that's where they're going next.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEIGH MCALLISTER GRACIE SONG, "LET'S START A MOVEMENT")

GONZALEZ: Alex, did you have credits when you were at PLANET MONEY?

BLUMBERG: Yes, we had credits, yeah.

GONZALEZ: Oh, you did have credits.

BLUMBERG: Yes, we did.

GONZALEZ: All right, do the credits for us.

BLUMBERG: All right.

Are you staving off a global catastrophe one sketchy parking lot deal at a time? Tell us about it. You can email us at planetmoney@npr.org. Or find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram at @planetmoney.

GONZALEZ: Today's show was produced by Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi. Bryant Urstadt edits the show, and Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer.

BLUMBERG: And thanks to my "How To Save A Planet" co-host, Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, who reported the story with me.

GONZALEZ: You guys should really check out the podcast. It is great, surprisingly fun and hopeful, which is what we all need right now.

BLUMBERG: Yeah. We're trying to make it into a climate podcast that people actually want to listen to and don't just feel like they should listen to (laughter).

GONZALEZ: I'm Sarah Gonzalez.

BLUMBERG: I'm Alex Blumberg. And here's some words that I used to say a lot that I don't say anymore. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

GONZALEZ: Aw.

BLUMBERG: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF LEIGH MCALLISTER GRACIE SONG, "LET'S START A MOVEMENT")

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