Turbulence ahead for EPA on airplane pollution cuts

Turbulence ahead for EPA on airplane pollution cuts
© Greg Nash

The Obama administration is setting the stage for a fight with environmentalists over how much to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from airplanes.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is preparing to announce, as soon as this week, its conclusion that the carbon dioxide expelled from aircraft in commercial service harms public health, kicking off the process of writing regulations to reduce that pollution.

The EPA appears likely to defer to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a United Nations body overseeing commercial flight that is planning to set global limits for plane emissions next year.

But proposed regulations hewing to those standards would anger green groups, who think ICAO will not go far enough with its rules and the EPA should set a higher bar.

“What we’re expecting to see is just them implementing the international standard into U.S. law through the Clean Air Act,” said Sarah Burt, an attorney with Earthjustice. “And from what we know of what ICAO’s doing, that’s going to be a very, very weak standard, basically a business-as-usual standard that passes most aircraft currently operating.”

Airlines support aligning EPA standards with the ICAO’s, but congressional Republicans worry the effort is another attempt to extend the Obama administration’s environmental regulatory reach.

The EPA’s impending announcement centers on a document known as an “endangerment finding,” in which the agency will decide whether carbon dioxide from planes is a risk to public health or welfare.

Concluding that it is compels the EPA to write regulations for greenhouse gases, as it did with cars, trucks and power plants after publishing endangerment findings for those pollution sources.

The EPA formally started its endangerment research in September, triggered by a court order stemming from a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice, the  and other groups.

The $200 billion commercial aviation industry generates about 3 percent of the country’s greenhouse gases, or 11 of the emissions from the transportation sector. The EPA already regulates plane pollutants including sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.

U.S. airlines are onboard with the EPA’s endeavor, under the condition that it aligns its rules with the ICAO’s.

“As aviation is a global industry, with airlines and aircraft operators operating internationally and aircraft manufacturers selling their aircraft in international markets, it is critical that aircraft emissions standards continue to be agreed at the international level,” Vaughn Jennings, spokesman for Airlines for America, said in a statement.

“Any regulatory action EPA takes must be consistent with both the agency’s authority under the Clean Air Act, as well as the expected ICAO standard.”

Every indication from the EPA is that the agency is following that strategy. Officials are working with the Federal Aviation Administration, which has primary responsibility over construction and maintenance rules for aircraft.

In a September notice to ICAO, the EPA said it expects to respond to the standards in a manner similar to previous environmental standards set by the international body.

“Under this approach international emission standards have first been adopted by ICAO, and subsequently U.S./EPA has initiated rulemakings to establish domestic standards equivalent to ICAO’s standards,” it said.

“In exercising U.S./EPA’s standard-setting and FAA’s enforcement authorities, the U.S. expects to follow a similar approach for aircraft greenhouse gas (GHG) emission standards (or aircraft CO2 standards),” it continued.

The new rules could dictate standards for jet engines, aerodynamics or other plane design aspects, which would reduce emissions by improving efficiency.

Greens are hopeful that the international standards will be strong, or if not, that the EPA will set its own path.

“The Clean Air Act gives the EPA authority to address the carbon pollution of these engines and aircraft, and it’s not subordinate to ICAO or to the international process,” said David Doniger, clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

“If we can get the international process to work and to produce significant results, that’s good,” he said. “But there’s domestic authority for U.S. action, and there’s a responsibility to act.”

But that strategy might not work. The European Union decided in 2012 to apply its emissions trading system to all airlines that flew to or from Europe, inciting blowback from other nations including the Unites States; Congress passed a law banning U.S.-based airlines from paying the fees.

Burt said she fears that weak standards could result in a net increase in greenhouse gases because air travel is set to double in the next two decades.

“Fuel efficiency for aircraft has been very, very slowly improving,” she said. “But it’s been improving more slowly than we’ve seen historically.”

The NRDC, Earthjustice and others sent the EPA a letter in January pushing for strong rules. They cited research showing that engine and frame changes alone could improve efficiency 13.3 percent.

But advocates say additional improvements could come from operational and navigation improvements, and the EPA should be obligated to study all of the possible efficiency gains.