EPA finalizes endangerment finding for aircraft emissions

Source: Hannah Hess, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, July 26, 2016

U.S. EPA today finalized two Clean Air Act findings on greenhouse gas emissions from aviation, officially confirming that airplane greenhouse gases are a danger to public health and welfare.

The final rule, signed this morning by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, paves the way for the agency to propose aircraft engine emissions standards. However, such rules are unlikely to be completed before President Obama leaves office (E&ENews PM, Sept. 4, 2014).

EPA’s attempts to set regulations on aviation emissions come as the International Civil Aviation Organization prepares to adopt a global market-based mechanism for shrinking airplanes’ carbon footprint in March 2017. EPA anticipates moving forward on standards that would be “at least as stringent as ICAO’s standards,” the agency said today.

“Addressing pollution from aircraft is an important element of U.S. efforts to address climate change,” said Janet McCabe, EPA’s acting assistant administrator for air and radiation. “Aircraft are the third largest contributor to GHG emissions in the U.S. transportation sector, and these emissions are expected to increase in the future.”

The rulemaking process for aircraft emissions will provide opportunities for industry, advocacy groups and other interested parties to provide their input through public review and comment.

Under the Clean Air Act, EPA would consult with the Federal Aviation Administration as it develops aircraft engine emissions standards. By law, any standards EPA sets must not cause a significant increase in noise or adversely affect safety.

In response to EPA’s decision, environmentalists doubled down on their criticism of the ICAO agreement, which calls for a 4 percent reduction in global fuel consumption in new aircraft starting in 2028 compared with 2015 levels (Greenwire, Feb. 9).

The World Wildlife Fund’s Brad Schallert, deputy director for international climate policy, called on EPA to adopt more stringent aircraft standards than the “weak” ICAO carbon dioxide standards agreed to in February.

“Merely matching those guidelines is insufficient,” Schallert said. “If the EPA is to fulfill its obligations under this endangerment finding to protect public health and welfare, then it must go further.”

Vera Pardee, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity, called the finding long overdue after “nearly a decade of denial and delay.”

Pardee said, “The Obama administration must quickly devise ambitious aircraft pollution rules that dramatically reduce this high-flying hazard to our climate.”

Advocates also warned they were prepared to sue the administration over efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from the aviation sector, an issue that already has a lengthy legal history.

“We will continue to use the power of law to compel EPA to put in place standards that actually reduce harmful pollution from aircraft,” said Sarah Burt, staff attorney at Earthjustice.

In 2007, the Center for Biological Diversity and several other environmental groups, represented by Earthjustice, petitioned EPA to regulate CO2 emissions from aircraft. They sued in 2010 after EPA failed to respond.

After a court order, EPA last summer began working on the endangerment finding finalized today. Environmentalists believe that the administration should issue the proposed rule before Jan. 20, when a new president takes office.

EPA defines “U.S. covered aircraft” to be subsonic jet aircraft, including smaller jet aircraft such as the Cessna Citation CJ3+ and the Embraer E170, up to the largest commercial jet aircraft — the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 747. EPA is not currently making a contribution finding for emissions from engines used in smaller aircraft, such as helicopters, military planes or small piston-engine planes, the type often used for recreational purposes.

The finding results in 89 percent of total domestic aircraft greenhouse emissions being included in the determination, according to EPA.

The agency has framed its work within the context of Obama’s Climate Action Plan, noting U.S. aircraft emit roughly 12 percent of greenhouse emissions from the U.S. transportation sector and 29 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from all aircraft globally.