EPA unveils ‘major action’ on CO2 from airplanes

By Maxine Joselow | 07/22/2020 01:30 PM EDT

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler today announced that the agency would limit greenhouse gas emissions from airplanes for the first time in U.S. history.

EPA announced plans to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft.

EPA announced plans to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft. lilivanili/Flickr

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler today announced that the agency would limit greenhouse gas emissions from airplanes for the first time in U.S. history.

The proposed rule represents a rare step to reduce planet-warming pollution by EPA, which has typically weakened or delayed climate rules under President Trump.

It’s also historic in nature. The United States has never regulated carbon dioxide from planes, in part because the international aviation sector was omitted from the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement.


But while industry groups cheered today’s announcement, environmentalists slammed the proposal as too weak to achieve meaningful emission reductions from aviation in the coming decades.

"Earlier today, the U.S., for the first time, proposed regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft," Wheeler said on a call with reporters this morning.

"This is the third time in the past two years that the Trump administration has taken major action to regulate greenhouse gases in a way that is legally defensible," he said, referring to the agency’s rollbacks of Obama-era rules on power plants and automobiles.

Wheeler said the proposed rule — which has not yet been published in the Federal Register — would mirror standards from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a United Nations body.

He tacitly acknowledged that industry groups — including manufacturers of airplane engines — had lobbied the agency to adopt the ICAO standards.

"What we heard from the industry was that they wanted us to implement the ICAO standards, which is what we are doing," he said.

Two manufacturers of plane engines — General Electric Co. and Boeing Co. — participated in a teleconference about the proposed rule with officials from EPA and the White House Office of Management and Budget on May 13, according to Reginfo.gov, a federal rule-tracking website.

In an emailed statement to E&E News, a Boeing spokesperson called the proposed rule a "major step forward for protecting the environment and supporting sustainable growth of commercial aviation and the United States economy."

Environmental groups, however, widely view the ICAO standards as too weak to encourage further investments in more fuel-efficient aircraft and engines. They note that planes built in 2016 were already meeting the standards.

"In the face of an increasingly dire climate crisis, these proposed standards cynically propose weaker outcomes than what business-as-usual already achieved in 2016," Joanne Spalding, chief climate counsel with the Sierra Club, said in a statement today.

"Once again, former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler is putting industry interests over the public interest in a safe and healthy climate by proposing a rule that does nothing at all to curb pollution from airplanes, on the heels of his rollback of clean car standards and in the middle of a pandemic," Spalding added.

Legal saga

The saga over the standards dates back to 2010, when environmental groups sued the Obama administration’s EPA over its alleged failure to address greenhouse gas emissions from mobile sources.

The groups — including the Center for Biological Diversity, Earthjustice, Oceana and Friends of the Earth — challenged EPA’s historical inaction on carbon emissions from ships, planes and non-road engines.

A complicated legal dance followed.

In 2011, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that EPA had to decide whether greenhouse gas emissions from planes endanger public health and welfare, and, if so, develop new regulations.

In 2016, the environmental groups filed another lawsuit alleging that EPA had failed to finalize an endangerment finding for planes, which would form the legal basis of the new standards. The agency finally issued the endangerment finding later that year.

The latest twist came in January, when the Center for Biological Diversity threatened to sue EPA for failing to act on the endangerment finding and shirking its responsibility under the Clean Air Act to curb pollution from planes.

Clare Lakewood, climate legal director at CBD, called today’s proposed rule "nothing but smoke and mirrors."

Annie Petsonk, international counsel at the Environmental Defense Fund, agreed.

"EPA’s proposed carbon dioxide emissions standard for aircraft is wholly insufficient to put the aviation industry on a trajectory of declining emissions consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement," she said in a statement. "It will be up to Congress to provide real leadership for the aviation sector."

Once the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register, the public will have 60 days to submit comments. The agency is hoping to issue a final rule in 2021, according to the Trump administration’s spring regulatory agenda (E&E News PM, June 30).