US environment groups put legal pressure on EPA to act on aircraft emissions rule setting
Wed 20 Apr 2016 – As President Obama gathers with other world leaders on Friday (Apr 22) to sign the climate agreement reached in Paris last December, US environmental groups have criticised the Administration for “foot dragging” over efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions from the US domestic aircraft fleet and have started a lawsuit. Filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth, the suit seeks to compel the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to complete the rule-making process it started last year. After eight of years of legal action by the groups, in June 2015 the EPA issued a proposed public health endangerment finding and rule-making on aircraft engine CO2 emissions. The EPA has been working with the FAA on the international aircraft CO2 standard that was agreed by ICAO’s environmental committee in February but has recently said it may not publish a proposed rule until 2017.
In 2013, aircraft emissions were the third largest transportation source of greenhouse gas emissions within the United States, accounting for around 11% of mobile source CO2 emissions and 3% of all domestic emissions. US aircraft emissions also represent 29% of all emissions from the air transport sector worldwide. A Center for Biological Diversity report estimates the global air transport sector could generate 43 gigatonnes of emissions through until 2050, consuming more than 4% of the world’s remaining carbon budget.
Within the US domestic transportation industry, aircraft emissions are the single largest source of greenhouse gases not subject to EPA regulation, point out the NGOs in their suit.
Environmental groups first petitioned the EPA to act on reducing aircraft pollutant levels in 2007, and in 2010 won a case that forced the EPA to set standards on GHGs from aircraft. The subsequent announcement by the EPA last year “proposed to find that GHG emissions from certain classes of engines used in aircraft contribute to the air pollution that causes climate change and endangers public health and welfare.”
In addition to the ‘endangerment finding’, it also issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) to provide information on the process for setting the ICAO aircraft CO2 standard and invited public input on adopting and implementing the standard domestically. Although ICAO’s Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection (CAEP) agreed on a standard in February, it still requires ratification by ICAO’s governing Council before it becomes binding on all ICAO member states from 2020. In the US, both the EPA and FAA have rulemaking responsibilities of establishing the new CO2 emissions levels and then enforcing those levels through aircraft certification.
The FAA estimates that if the standard is adopted at ICAO, carbon emissions from aircraft worldwide could fall by more than 650 million tonnes between 2020 and 2040. It says the move would also reduce fuel burn by 4% by 2028, compared to 2015 aircraft models.
However, environmental groups are far from happy with the CAEP-proposed standard, believing it to be lacking in stringency. They had expected the EPA to issue its own proposals this spring, which could come up with tougher regulations than those agreed in ICAO, but the agency has recently indicated the earliest date for the publication of a proposed rule is now next year, with 2018 as the earliest possible date for the promulgation of a final rule regulating aircraft emissions. The lawsuit against the EPA argues this is “an unreasonable delay”.
“President Obama will show his commitment to fighting climate change when he signs the Paris Agreement, but the standards he is prepared to accept for carbon pollution from airplanes are embarrassingly low,” said Sarah Burt, Earthjustice’s legal expert on aircraft pollution. “As the largest contributor to aircraft carbon pollution, the US should lead the way to meaningful action on this source of emissions.”
Added Vera Pardee, a senior attorney with the Center’s Climate Law Institute: “The EPA has dawdled for almost a decade, even as airplane emissions are on track to spiral out of control. We can’t afford more denial and delay in tackling this high-flying threat to our climate.”