EPA Moves Toward Regulating Aircraft Emissions

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 09:  US President Barack Obama speaks at the Catholic Hospital Association conference June 9, 2015 in W
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 09: US President Barack Obama speaks at the Catholic Hospital Association conference June 9, 2015 in Washington, DC. President Obama discussed what healthcare reform has meant to millions of Americans and the affordable coverage options for individuals in general. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- The Environmental Protection Agency announced findings Wednesday that greenhouse gas emissions from commercial airplanes contribute to climate change, which is "endangering the health and welfare of Americans."

The agency did not announce actual regulations at this point. Rather, it is signaling its intent to reach an endangerment finding, which would trigger regulations under the Clean Air Act. At this stage, the EPA is soliciting input from stakeholders on that proposed finding.

The agency noted that in the U.S., aircraft are responsible for contributing about 11 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector. Globally, emissions from U.S. planes represent 29 percent of all aircraft greenhouse gas emissions.

Aircraft emissions have been the subject of scrutiny by the United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organization, which is currently working to develop international carbon dioxide emissions standards for commercial planes. The ICAO is expected to release standards in February 2016.

Christopher Grundler, director of the EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality, said in a call with reporters Wednesday that the EPA administrator must still finalize the endangerment finding. Doing so, said Grundler, sets the stage "to potentially limit greenhouse gas emissions in future standards." The finding would allow the U.S. to move forward with adopting the ICAO standards, Grundler said.

Grundler acknowledged that rules on aircraft emissions would likely not be finalized until after the Obama administration has ended. The administrator still needs to make a final determination of endangerment, and the ICAO isn't expected to produces its standards until next year, meaning the earliest the agency could put out a proposed rule is 2017, and a final rule likely would not come until 2018, Grundler said.

Advocates for cutting climate-changing emissions praised the announcement, noting that aircraft are a large and heretofore unregulated source of emissions in the U.S. and global aviation emissions are expected to double in the next five years.

"The United States should adopt strong standards to apply to U.S. airline pollution, and on the world stage the U.S. should leverage ambitious domestic action to secure a robust global agreement," Deborah Lapidus, director of the Flying Clean campaign, said in an email. "The airlines have a responsibility to do their part on climate change just like every other industry, and EPA needs to hold them to that."

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