Congress tries to thwart EU action on airline emissions

U.S. airlines don’t want to play by EU rules, and Congress has their back.

Bill would allow U.S. airlines to disobey duly passed carbon cap regulations

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — Congress didn’t accomplish much the past few months, but in one of its last acts before recessing for the upcoming campaign season, the U.S. Senate did manage to throw a monkey wrench into European Union plans to try and cap greenhouse gas emissions from passenger jets.

That’s symbolic for a Congress that has been focused primarily on obstruction for the past two years, and shows how U.S. politicians are out of touch with the global move to try and tackle global warming. That’s probably why the bill was was passed under cover of the night — at 2 a.m. Saturday, to be exact, when nobody was looking.

Here’s what’s at stake: The European law holds airlines accountable for emissions and sets up a carbon cap and trading system. Aviation is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions, rising 3 percent to 4 percent per year.  Until now, the sector has escaped regulations that would require emissions reductions.

The aviation industry is already responsible for a significant amount of greenhouse gases and emissions are expected to quadruple by 2050.

The EU law requires airlines flying in and out of EU airports to report their emissions once a year, based on a formula that factors in fuel use and payload. For the first year, the cap on emissions is set at 97 percent of the 2004-2006 baseline amount. After 2012, the cap drops down to 95 percent of the baseline through 2020.

For emissions above the cap, airlines will be able to buy carbon credits on existing markets, either within the airline industry or even from other industries, according to Pamela Campos, A Colorado-based attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund specializing in clean air issues.

The total cost per passenger is estimated at perhaps $3 to $5 for a U.S. to Europe flight, hardly a big chunk of change.

U.S. air carriers lost their legal challenge to the law in the Court of Justice of the European Union, which determined that the regulation is fully compliant with international law. So, under pressure from the airline lobby, Congress opted to give the industry a get-out-of-jail-free card.

The bill passed by the Senate Saturday morning gives the Secretary of Transportation authority to prohibit U.S. airlines from complying with the EU law and requires the Secretary of Transportation to bail them out if fines are assessed against them — and guess what? That means every American taxpayer could end paying the bill.

If President Obama signs the bill, it could be the first time that Congress has authorized the government to prohibit American companies from complying with the duly enacted law of another nation, according to Environmental Defense Fund attorney Annie Petsonk. Read Petsonk’s deconstruction of the law at the EDF blog.

One of the main criticisms of the bill is that it puts Europe at odds with the rest of the world, but the EU is not about to apologize for trying take meaningful action on climate change.

Given the current uncertainties surrounding the EU law, it’s more important than ever for the global community to try and address the issue of airline emissions, and it would be good to have some U.S. leadership on the issue.

But that’s not likely from a Congress that seems intent on deliberately downplaying or ignoring the most critical environmental issue of our age.

 

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