EPA faces lawsuit over failure to regulate aircraft emissions

Aerial view of Heathrow Airport
A lawsuit seeks to force the EPA to set standards for airline emissions. @bberwyn photo.

Environmental groups fed up with agency foot-dragging

Staff Report

With the airline industry and the EPA dragging their feet on limiting greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft, environmental groups this week decided to press the issue in court.

The lawsuit, filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, accuses the EPA of violating the Clean Air Act by unreasonably delaying action on airline emissions.

The new lawsuit was foreshadowed in January 2015, when the same groups wrote letters urging the EPA and the Federal Aviation Administration to at least propose standards by the end of 2015. That followed a 2010 court decision that affirmed the EPA’s obligation to address aircraft emissions under the Clean Air Act. In all, environmental groups have been trying to get the EPA to act for nearly 10 years, starting with a rulemaking petition in 2007.

Under threat of a new lawsuit, the EPA finally launched a rulemaking process in 2014. At the earliest, the agency would publish an emissions-capping rule in 2017, to be finalized the following year.

The latest lawsuit once again highlights the EPA’s obligation to  issue emission standards for any aircraft pollutant that “may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.” Airplanes are one of the fastest-growing carbon emissions sources, projected to triple by 2050 without regulations.

“Airplanes’ skyrocketing climate pollution requires urgent action, not more foot dragging from the Obama administration,” said 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,” Pardee said.

“Next month President Obama will show his commitment to fighting climate change when he signs the Paris Climate 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 U.S. should lead the way to meaningful action on this source of emissions,” Burt said.

In February the International Civil Aviation Organization recommended weak international standards for airplane pollution that would barely alter the industry’s steeply-rising pollution curve. These weak standards do not meet U.S. legal requirements, increasing pressure on the EPA to propose stronger rules.

Airplanes could generate 43 gigatonnes of planet-warming pollution through 2050, consuming almost 5 percent of the world’s remaining carbon budget, according to a recent Center for Biological Diversity report.



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