The Obama administration wants to declare that greenhouse gas emissions from airplanes are harmful, which would set up regulations to limit the pollution.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a proposed “endangerment finding” Wednesday, which would formally conclude that carbon dioxide and any other greenhouse gases from commercial airplanes contribute to climate change and harm the public health and welfare.
“Today we are proposing to find that greenhouse gas emissions from engines used primarily on commercial aircraft contribute to the pollution that causes climate change, setting the stage to potentially limit greenhouse gas emissions in future standards,” Christopher Grundler, the EPA’s top transportation emissions regulatory, told reporters.
While the Obama administration is kicking off the process, any regulation resulting from it would not be made final until 2018 — long after President Obama is out of office.
The move is a major win for environmentalists; aircraft are the largest source of greenhouse gases that the EPA is not either regulating or planning to regulate.
But the EPA’s proposed solution to the airplane climate problem — adopting upcoming international standards for aircraft — received quick condemnation from environmentalists who predict the worldwide rules will be weak.
And Republicans were immediately skeptical of the Obama administration extending its climate regulations over another major sector.
Along with the proposed endangerment finding, the EPA set the stage Wednesday for eventually writing a formal regulation limiting airplanes’ emissions, which it said would likely align with International Commercial Aviation Organization (ICAO) rules due out in February 2016. The ICAO, a United Nations agency, is the main regulatory body for international air travel.
The EPA is not obligated to align with the international rules, and greens are calling for the agency to go beyond them.
But Grundler said matching the ICAO would be the best option if the rules go forward.
“Our No. 1 goal is to secure a meaningful international standard,” he said. “There are sound environmental policy reasons to do so. An international standard would cover way more aircraft than simply a domestic standard and would secure far more greenhouse gas emission reductions.”
Airplanes in the United States emit about 11 percent of the transportation sector’s carbon, or about 29 percent of the carbon from the worldwide aviation industry. But their emissions are only 3 percent of the total greenhouse gases in the country.
The EPA’s action mirrors similar endangerment findings it made starting in 2009 regarding greenhouse gases from cars, trucks and power plants.
The early action from the EPA did not set any particular targets for reducing planes’ carbon output, nor did it clarify what measures could be used. It also did not estimate the costs, which would likely be passed onto passengers.
The airline industry said it supports the ICAO process and said the EPA is right to follow the international body’s lead.
“Aviation is a global industry, making it critical that aircraft emissions standards continue to be agreed upon at the international level,” Nancy Young, vice president for environmental affairs at Airlines for America, said in a statement.
“While we believe that any regulatory action must be consistent with both the agency’s authority under the Clean Air Act and the future ICAO standard, today’s action reconfirms the EPA’s commitment to the ICAO process for achieving a global CO2 standard for new aircraft,” Young continued.
Environment America applauded the move, but urged stronger standards than the international ones.
“Since today’s announcement will likely cause a fight in Congress, we hope the president makes this a fight worth having by requiring real cuts in airplane pollution,” Anna Aurilio, director of the group’s global warming program, said in a statement. “Bold action on climate should solve the problem of pollution from airplanes, not just acknowledge it.”
“The sky is the limit when it comes to how much of the U.S. economy the EPA wants to control,” Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Committee, said in a statement, complaining that the rules would increase ticket prices and hurt airlines.
“This proposal is the next leg of a nonstop journey by the EPA to control how Americans live, work and travel,” he said.
Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) blasted the EPA’s action.
“If there is any endangerment finding that needs to be released it is on the danger the EPA poses to the American economy,” he said in a statement. “This regulation will only serve to hurt Kansas aviation workers and their families, while doing nothing to achieve any measurable reduction in carbon emissions.”
— Updated at 3:17 p.m.