EPA puts climate target on airlines

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The Obama administration has launched a new front in its fight against greenhouse gas emissions, choosing as its next target the $200 billion per year commercial aviation industry.

Airplanes emit about 2 percent of the country’s carbon dioxide, and would be the fourth pollution source to be subject to greenhouse gas regulations, after vehicles, major buildings and power plants.

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Republicans, already opposed to most of Obama’s environmental policies, criticized the decision to study aviation emissions as another example of regulatory overreach.

But the airline industry and manufacturers signaled optimism that the United States’ actions could lead toward international standards for planes’ emissions.

For Sen. John ThuneJohn ThuneTim Kaine backs call to boost funding for Israeli missile defense FCC chief pushes phone companies to offer free robocall blocking How the new aviation law will affect your travel MORE (R-S.D.), the possible regulations sounded too much like the European Union’s attempts in 2012 to extend its cap-and-trade system to all airlines flying to or from the continent.

Thune, now the top Republican on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, spearheaded passage of a law that prohibits United States airlines from participating in Europe’s fee system.

“I oppose any efforts by the Obama EPA to saddle American airline passengers with new taxes to reduce aviation emissions,” Thune said in a statement.

“The U.S. is already working with its international partners and aviation stakeholders to develop appropriate emissions standards. The EPA must not stray from this important collaborative effort or it will damage the competitiveness of U.S. carriers and unfairly harm American travelers,” he said.

Rep. Ed WhitfieldEd WhitfieldEthics panel rebukes Kentucky Republican ‘Un-American’ charge ignites hearing on EPA rules EPA finalizes stronger methane emission rules MORE (R-Ky.) said he is also alarmed.

“EPA’s eyeing of new standards for aircraft next year underscores the Obama administration's relentless and extreme regulatory climate pursuit,” Whitfield said. “This will add to the growing set of regulatory actions that will raise prices for the goods and services purchased by American consumers.”

The EPA did not definitely say it would write regulations. Instead, it said on Thursday that it would research whether greenhouse gas emissions from planes endanger the public health or welfare.

Still, that step could result in an April 2015 proposal for the endangerment finding, and a finalized version a year later.

The EPA would then have to conclude that carbon from airplanes causes or contributes to pollution that harms health or welfare, before initiating a regulatory process for which it has so far not set a timeline.

The long process could extend beyond President Obama’s time in office, which worries some environmentalists. But once the endangerment finding is complete, the EPA is legally obligated to move forward with a regulation.

“We think there is absolutely no way that EPA will arrive at any conclusion other than that greenhouse gases from aircraft indeed endanger human health and welfare,” said Vera Pardee, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

“EPA is very late doing this, but it is nonetheless a welcome step,” she said of the EPA’s latest action.

Pardee’s group, along with some of its allies, filed a lawsuit against the EPA in 2010 to force it to regulate carbon from planes. In 2012, a federal court ruled that the EPA must undertake the process to determine endangerment, leading to this week’s action.

But EPA’s decision also serves another purpose.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), an agency of the United Nations, is working to set worldwide standards for airplane emissions by 2016. The EPA said it is interested in working with ICAO to set those rules, while writing regulations to enable the United States to adopt them.

The international nature of the efforts is what has the United States’ aviation interests onboard, unlike Europe’s attempts two years ago.

“We as airlines are very supportive of the work that ICAO’s doing,” said Nancy Young, vice president of environmental affairs at Airlines for America. “We’re very supportive of the fact that EPA and [Federal Aviation Administration] are actually significant leaders in the work that’s going on at ICAO.”

If the ICAO requires any new certifications for aircraft, which Young said is likely, the Federal Aviation Administration would have to be on board as well, since it is responsible for regulating airplane construction, maintenance and operation.

The Aerospace Industries Association, which represents aircraft and parts manufacturers such as Boeing Co. and Honeywell International Inc., also supports the effort.

“In order to harmonize standards throughout the world, we need to make sure the EPA does their part in starting this endangerment finding,” said Leslie Riegle, the group’s environmental policy director.

“Right now it’s just signaling the beginning of the process, which we’re totally aligned with.”

But both groups want to make sure the ICAO and the EPA work toward standards that are attainable and that they can work within.

They also don’t want the EPA to go beyond the international agency, which is a real possibility.

“If they go a step above that, that’s exactly what we’re concerned with,” said Riegle. “It would put our manufacturers at a competitive disadvantage to the rest of the industry.”

Both groups acknowledged that the standards are likely to increase the costs of airplanes, which will increase ticket prices.

“The standard, no matter what, will cost manufacturers money, and it will cost airlines money as a result because it will increase the prices of aircraft,” said Young. “The level of the increase is to be determined, because that’s being studied right now.”

Riegle agreed that it is too early to tell what the costs will be. But she predicted that it would be manageable, since the ICAO and the EPA are likely only to target newly built airplanes, while leaving those in operation alone.