Comments to EPA’s Proposed Aircraft GHG Rule Show Industry Support, Activist Opposition

The comment period for the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed first-ever greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions standards for commercial aircraft ended on October 19. There was a roughly even split between industry comments supporting the proposed standard and environmental activist groups and governmental officials complaining that it did not go far enough and should be tightened. However, not every commenter supported the EPA’s decision to regulate in the first place.

It all started with a 2016 Obama administration finding, pursuant to the Clean Air Act (CAA), that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft endangers public health and welfare, similar to the EPA’s earlier endangerment finding for motor vehicles. As a result of this finding (as well as environmental group litigation forcing the issue), the Trump EPA has proposed emissions standards for aircraft. Separately, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), of which the U.S. and most other nations are members, had set its own GHG standards for commercial aircraft. The EPA proposal largely reflects the ICAO standards.

Industry commenters, such as the Aerospace Industries Association, Boeing, and Airlines for America (representing the airlines) generally supported the proposal. Manufacturers emphasized that EPA standards mirroring ICAO were needed in order to certify American-made equipment for sale abroad. In Boeing’s words, “the proposed rule would reflect U.S. efforts to secure the highest practicable degree of uniformity in aviation regulations and standards … and implements EPA’s obligations under the CAA.”

They also noted that the stringency of the standards differs little from the emissions improvements industry is already achieving. Aviation fuel is a major expense for airlines, so commercial aircraft makers must produce highly efficient models in order to stay competitive. Several also noted that their industry has been among the hardest hit by COVID-19, and that now is not the time for more burdensome technology-forcing measures.

In contrast, many environmental organizations attacked the proposed standard as too lenient. They derided what they saw as an “the industry-controlled process designed to maintain business as usual,” and demanded that it be replaced “with strong, technology-forcing standards that rapidly decarbonize the aviation industry in line with what climate science and equity demand.” Green groups also asserted that the U.S. should take the lead with tougher standards than those of ICAO. They, along with 12 state attorneys general and other officials, have promised to bring pressure, including litigation, to bring about more onerous aircraft emission standards.

Beyond debating stringency, the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) raised more fundamental issues about the need for a rule and industry acquiescence to it. TPPF questioned the underlying endangerment finding for aircraft, noting that, in addition to reasons to doubt the endangerment finding for GHG emissions from motor vehicles, flying accounts for only two percent of total GHG emissions, less than 1/10th that of driving. “By refusing to rebuke the regulation of aviation GHG emissions under the Clean Air Act (CAA), the only result of this rule will be to further drag out the arguments over the appropriate level of regulation,” TPPF noted. The organization also questioned whether there were other means of certifying American-made engines to ICAO standards that are less intrusive than the EPA’s proposal. None of these concerns have been addressed by the agency.