EPA poised to regulate aviation emissions — but how?

By Jean Chemnick | 06/10/2015 01:00 PM EDT

U.S. EPA started work today on an effort to regulate greenhouse gases from aviation with the release of a finding that aircraft emissions endanger public health — a prerequisite to Clean Air Act restrictions.

U.S. EPA started work today on an effort to regulate greenhouse gases from aviation with the release of a finding that aircraft emissions endanger public health — a prerequisite to Clean Air Act restrictions.

The agency also provided an assessment of the sector’s contribution to warming and an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) on how EPA might rein in aviation emissions constituting 11 percent of the transportation sector’s greenhouse gases. There will be a 60-day public comment period after the document is published in the Federal Register.

EPA framed its rulemaking in the context of an international effort to rein in emissions, which was expected. But questions remain about whether EPA will pursue stringent rules of its own to force airlines to improve the fuel efficiency of today’s fleet and install new technologies on aircraft currently being designed and built or whether it will defer to an international process for emissions curbs.


Also at issue is whether EPA will specify a timeline that would deliver a final rule before President Obama leaves office.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the U.N. body that oversees aviation, is expected to negotiate emission rules at its meeting in February to be adopted later in 2016. But the ICAO process would apply only to new designs by a date after 2020 that is yet to be determined, and greens say it could cover only 5 percent of global aviation by 2030.

Instead of relying on ICAO, environmentalists are urging EPA to promulgate its own "technology-forcing" standard for the U.S. aviation industry, which makes up more than a quarter of the world’s fleet. If EPA does so, the United States can pressure other countries to follow suit, they say, making a dramatic difference in a sector with growing emissions.

Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, said the United States has the potential to play the same role in spurring greater industrywide improvements in aviation efficiency that California has done on automobile efficiency. By promulgating a tougher-than-global standard if ICAO fails to deliver, he said, EPA can encourage airlines to raise the floor on global efficiency standards to avoid a regulatory patchwork.

"The international community, ICAO, has the ability to do this right and to set a standard that is sufficiently stringent to address environmental concerns," he said. "It’s up to the international community and the affected airlines and aircraft engine manufacturers to find that sweet spot that will yield sufficient emissions reductions but at the same time be supportable so that it will obviate the need for the U.S. in the future to set its own more stringent standards."

Greens note that vehicles and power plants are already becoming subject to EPA carbon restrictions.

"The airlines have a responsibility to do their part on climate change just like every other industry, and EPA needs to hold them to that," said Deborah Lapidus, director of the Flying Clean Campaign, in a statement.

The EPA rules have been a long time coming. In 2007, environmental groups petitioned EPA to issue an endangerment finding and to regulate, and in 2010 they filed suit. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued a ruling requiring that EPA make an endangerment determination. Some of the same plaintiffs have hinted that they will return to court if EPA’s actions fall short of the rules they want.

But while the ICAO process has dragged on for nearly two decades and is expected to yield very lax regulations, some environmentalists say it has the potential to increase ambition.

Pamela Campos, a senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund, noted that in addition to negotiating efficiency standards, ICAO is also weighing the adoption of a market-based mechanism to cap greenhouse gas emissions worldwide — a policy that could deliver emissions reductions that a straight efficiency rule might not. Both the efficiency standards and cap would be finalized in October of next year to take effect after 2020.

"The key message on this is really that the efficiency standard is one important piece and an international agreement to cap emissions from aviation is an important compliment," she said.

While efficiency standards would deal directly with aircraft engines, a cap could compel airlines to better match the planes they use to routes and ridership and to maximize the efficiency of their takeoff and touchdown plans.