The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee today passed a bill that would allow the secretary of transportation to ban airlines from complying with the only program in the world that sets enforceable limits on carbon pollution from aviation.
The Senate bill (S.1956) would give the transportation secretary the authority to prohibit airlines from participating in the EU Emissions Trading System, if, after taking into account many different considerations, he determines that it is in the public interest to do so. Unlike the bill passed last year in the House of Representatives, this bill does not automatically prohibit U.S. airlines from participating in the EU system.
Countries, including the United States, along with airlines and environmental groups all agree aviation emissions should be addressed at the international level, through the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
However, countries have spent a decade and a half at the UN agency discussing — and failing to agree on — a program to cut carbon pollution.
EDF's International Counsel Annie Petsonk said in a statement after the vote today this Senate bill doesn't get the United States any closer to such a solution, and urged the Obama administration to step up its pressure on ICAO.
Passage of this disappointing and short-sighted bill today seems only to decrease the odds of action at the international level by calling into question the status of the one lever that actually moved ICAO to have serious discussions after 15 years of inaction – the EU Emissions Trading System.
This bill now ups the pressure on the Obama administration to produce a solution at ICAO. We are happy to see the text at least encouraged international negotiations at ICAO, which we believe hold the key to a global agreement to reduce aviation emissions.
Petsonk also said that only a couple times in history has U.S. legislation blocked companies from obeying another country's law.
Legislation that blocks American companies from obeying the laws of the countries in which they do business is almost unprecedented in U.S. history, showing up most recently when Congress barred American firms from suborning apartheid in South Africa.
How disconcerting that airlines, which are spending significant funds touting their environmental friendliness, are acting as though an anti-pollution law is as grievous as a massive human rights violation.
An amendment to the bill says the secretary of transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) administrator and other government officials:
should, as appropriate, use their authority to conduct international negotiations, including using their authority to conduct international negotiations to pursue a worldwide approach to address aircraft emissions;
Expressing skepticism of that "authority to conduct international negotiations to pursue a worldwide approach to address aircraft emissions," Petsonk told Reuters:
We've been in hot pursuit of this (an ICAO framework) for 15 years, so what makes the Senate think this is any different?
Up next, the bill's proponents will seek its quick passage on the Senate floor, either as a stand-alone bill or as an amendment to other legislation. Whether they succeed remains to be seen.
See also: Annie Petsonk's blog, Will Washington meeting on aviation pollution be undermined by U.S. airlines?