EPA poised to act on aircraft carbon

Source: Amanda Reilly, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, February 12, 2016

The ball is now in U.S. EPA’s court following an international agreement setting limits on greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft.

The agreement announced yesterday by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. body, represents the first-ever international energy efficiency and carbon dioxide reduction targets for the aviation sector.

The new deal calls for a 4 percent reduction in fuel consumption in new aircraft starting in 2028 compared to 2015 levels.

EPA is poised to take the next step to regulate the airline industry’s carbon emissions this summer after proposing an endangerment finding last year.

In the coming years, it will be up to the agency to decide whether to adopt the new international standard or to advance more restrictive CO2 limits.

The White House promoted the international standard yesterday as lowering carbon emissions globally by 650,000 metric tons between 2020 and 2040, or the equivalent of removing 140 million cars from the road.

The Obama administration said the standard was one of string of international successes to address climate change that includes the recent Paris deal.

Environmental organizations have for years pushed EPA to regulate the aviation sector’s emissions using Section 231 of the Clean Air Act. Those groups swiftly criticized the new international standard as inadequate.

Advocates yesterday warned they were prepared to sue the administration if EPA did not swiftly issue regulations more stringent than the ICAO limit.

“The standards will serve primarily to prevent backsliding in emissions,” said Sarah Burt, a staff attorney at Earthjustice. “This standard for new types does nothing to reduce emissions below what can be expected under business-as-usual.”

EPA’s efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from the aviation sector already come with a long legal history.

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 the process of regulating the sector with its proposed finding that aircraft emissions endanger public health. Such a finding is typically the first step to issuing new Clean Air Act regulations.

EPA last year also issued a notice of proposed rulemaking for new standards covering the aviation sector, framing it in the context of the ICAO effort.

“EPA is way behind. And as far as we’re concerned, it should have finalized the endangerment finding as it finally proposed it last summer already,” said Vera Pardee, a senior counsel at CBD. “Our position is that they are late, later and latest.”

If the global commercial airline sector were a country, CBD says, it would rank seventh after Germany for its carbon emissions.

EPA has said it would finalize the endangerment finding by the summer, but an agency spokeswoman today said it would not issue proposed regulations for the sector until next year — likely after President Obama leaves office.

The agency is planning to advance the rulemaking in consultation with the Federal Aviation Administration but has not said whether it will issue regulations that are more stringent than the ICAO standard.

‘Anti-backsliding standard’

ICAO began developing the international standard in 2010. The deal yesterday, which the full ICAO assembly must ratify later this year, will apply to all new commercial and business aircraft after Jan. 1, 2028, with a transition period for modified aircraft.

“The goal of this process is ultimately to ensure that when the next generation of aircraft types enter service, there will be guaranteed reductions in international CO2 emissions,” ICAO Council President Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu said in a statement yesterday.

Nations have the choice of either adopting the standard or implementing more stringent requirements. Environmentalists have long raised concerns that the ICAO process would result in a standard that isn’t sufficient to meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act, or even to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the sector.

ICAO’s new final standards — while it’s at the upper end of the stringency range that the U.N. body considered — calls for a third of the technically feasible efficiency improvements that will likely be available by the time it takes effect, according to an analysis yesterday by the International Council on Clean Transportation.

“ICAO agreed in 2011 that the standard had to reduce emissions. And yet the proposal will only require CO2 reductions from new aircraft of 4 percent over 12 years, when market forces alone are predicted to achieve more than a 10 percent efficiency gain in the same time frame. This is an anti-backsliding standard,” said Drew Kodjak, executive director of the ICCT.

In a statement yesterday, Boeing Co. said that its new commercial planes have already been designed to meet and exceed the emission reduction requirements, noting that its new models reduce fuel use and CO2 emissions by up to 25 percent compared to the models they replace.

Pardee of CBD yesterday said that the ICAO limit fails to meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act in several key ways. Because it was set at a level that represents where the industry is already going, the standard is not “technology forcing” as required by the law, she said.

Pardee also faulted the standard for not addressing aircraft that are in operation today and said EPA must at least look at regulating existing aircraft to comply with the U.S. law.

“EPA has a duty not just to set any sort of standard,” Pardee said, “but one that protects public health and welfare by reducing or even preventing pollution altogether.”

Further legal action

Environmentalists called on EPA to move up it proposed regulatory timeline and issue draft standards with more stringent emissions reductions than the ICAO agreement at the same time it finalizes the endangerment finding this summer.

“We will be considering taking further legal action if they don’t seem to be moving that up,” Burt of Earthjustice said.

Burt, however, acknowledged that U.S. regulators are in a “tough place,” caught between the requirements of the domestic Clean Air Act and the goals set by the international community.

But she argued that EPA had a “fair amount of cushion” to put in place a more stringent standard that would apply domestically without upending the global aviation industry.

“EPA should be pushing industry to do better,” she said, “and by doing that, it will have a ripple effect on industry worldwide.”

ICAO plans to revisit the standard in 2019 to take stock of how airplane technology has changed. Nations are also working toward an agreement later this year to shape a market-based program for reducing the aviation sector’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Manufacturers and operators of business jets yesterday applauded the international standard, calling it a “landmark environmental measure.”

“The CO2 standard is a significant step representing the commitment of manufacturers and operators of business aircraft to mitigating CO2 emissions,” said Kurt Edwards, director general of the International Business Aviation Council.