US conservation groups to sue EPA over delays in finding aviation emissions an endangerment to health
Thu 21 Aug 2014 – Conservation groups have filed a notice of intent to sue the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over a perceived failure and unreasonable delay by the government agency in addressing aviation’s growing aviation emissions. The dispute goes back over six years to when the groups first petitioned EPA to carry out a mandatory duty under the Clean Air Act to determine whether greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from aircraft engines cause or contribute to air pollution “that may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare”. The mandate was upheld in a court ruling in July 2011, and in 2012 EPA acknowledged its obligation to conduct an endangerment finding and indicated it would begin work, but has yet to take any steps in the rulemaking process. EPA said it would “review and respond accordingly” to the notice but that it was currently working through ICAO on an international CO2 efficiency standard for new type aircraft.
The 180-day notice was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth, which is being represented by Earthjustice. In their letter of notice to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, the organisations point out EPA has found GHG emissions do indeed endanger public health and welfare, and had taken action to regulate them from other sources, including motor vehicles.
They add aviation is one of the fastest-growing sources of CO2 pollution, accounting for around 11% of CO2 emissions from the US transportation sector and rising at three to five per cent a year. “Because of the significant role that aircraft play in global climate change, and in light of the exponential growth projected in air travel, the United States must lead the way in regulating global warming pollutants from these sources,” said the letter.
Commented Martin Wagner, an Earthjustice managing attorney: “There is a real opportunity to curb global warming pollution from the airline industry. But the industry won’t do it on its own. EPA must act now to ensure that the airline industry operates more efficiently to play its part in protecting our families, our communities and the environment from the devastating effects of climate change.”
The move was supported by European NGO Transport & Environment (T&E). “We welcome this action by US civil society,” said its Aviation Programme Manager, Bill Hemmings. “North American domestic aviation CO2 emissions alone exceed all the rest of the world’s domestic emissions combined, so their effective regulation is long overdue.”
A spokesperson for EPA told GreenAir: “As the suit is received, EPA will review and respond accordingly.”
She added in a statement: “EPA has been publicly working on the development of international CO2 standards for four years at ICAO, which are expected to be finalised in early 2016. If these international standards were to be incorporated domestically, EPA would first need to propose an endangerment finding for aircraft GHGs under the Clean Air Act.
“Right now, the Agency is taking action on climate change by implementing the President’s Climate Action Plan and taking on the largest sources of carbon pollution first. We have already put in place light duty vehicle standards for GHG emissions and now are working on a second round of standards for heavy duty vehicles. We are also in the process of finalising standards for power plants, the largest source of carbon pollution in the United States.”
Work towards approval of a CO2 certification standard for new types of aircraft is ongoing in ICAO’s Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection (CAEP), which is currently preparing a cost-effectiveness analysis of various levels of stringency. It is expected to reach a recommendation that will be approved at the February 2016 CAEP meeting, before consideration and adoption by the governing ICAO Council.
“We are pleased that EPA and the Federal Aviation Administration are actively participating in the ICAO work,” a spokesperson for US airline association Airlines for America (A4A) told GreenAir. “In light of US airlines’ strong record of fuel efficiency and carbon emissions reduction, and EPA’s direct role in the ICAO work, threats to sue EPA to force additional regulatory action are unnecessary.
“Our global coalition supports agreement at ICAO to develop a CO2 certification standard for new type aircraft to be approved in 2016 and to work on a potential global market-based measure to serve as a ‘gap-filler’ should we not be able to achieve carbon neutral growth from 2020 through concerted industry and government investments in technology, operations and infrastructure.”
Environmental NGOs also support the development of an international CO2 standard but have been critical of the process so far. T&E’s Hemmings said the standard had little prospect of reducing emissions beyond what would have been achieved without regulation. “This is because ICAO intends to limit the standard’s stringency to 2016 technologies operational in 2020, which will largely have been overtaken by the time the standard takes effect,” he maintained. “Efficiency standards have played an important role in reducing emissions in other transport sectors and their role is even more important in aviation.”
Against an ICAO annual global efficiency improvement goal of 2% – the industry has committed to a lower 1.5% target through until 2020 – T&E claims the historical industry trend of aircraft efficiency improvement is showing a declining rate and is currently around 0.6% per year.
A4A points out US airlines improved their fuel efficiency by 120% between 1978 and 2013, saving in the process 3.6 billion tonnes of CO2, and in 2013 carried 17% more passengers and cargo than in 2000 while emitting 8% less CO2.
Dan Rutherford of US-headquartered environmental research non-profit International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) agrees – up to a point. “The fuel efficiency of US domestic operations improved strongly from 1990 to 2008 – an average of 3% per year – due to improvements in new aircraft efficiency and rising load factors.”
However, he added in a blog posted in May: “In recent years, gains from new aircraft in the United States have fallen, raising the risk that efficiency improvements will stall completely as the marginal gains of filling every available seat drop off.
“We first identified the trend of falling improvement for new equipment back in 2009. It’s driven by a lack of new types and by prioritisation of aircraft performance, notably range and speed, over fuel burn improvements. Due to the time lag between new aircraft delivery and penetration into the in-use fleet, this slowdown is now evident at the airline level.
“Since that 2009 report, new aircraft types like the 787-8 have been brought into service, and manufacturers have announced a number of project aircraft – for example the A320neo, 737 MAX and 777X – that may eventually start to reverse this trend.”
Friends of the Earth analyst John Kaltenstein said: “As time runs out to head off global warming’s worst effects, President Obama has to push the aviation industry to cut carbon pollution. Airlines can clearly operate much more efficiently but federal rules are critical to reducing their dangerous emissions.”