U.S. House passes bill to make it illegal for U.S. airlines to comply with EU law to cut aviation emissions

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill tonight that could worsen air pollution and force U.S. airlines to stop flying to Europe, or risk violating other nations’ laws at their and other U.S. companies’ expense.

The EU law that the House voted to block, the Aviation Directive, is a modest, non-discriminatory first step to tackling pollution from airlines, and was enacted several years ago after countries spent a dozen years failing to agree on a program in the International Civil Aviation Organization to cut carbon pollution.

The “European Union Emissions Trading Scheme Prohibition Act of 2011” (H.R. 2594) was introduced in July by Rep. John Mica (R-FL), among others, and would make it illegal for airlines to comply with the EU law, the only program in the world that sets enforceable limits on carbon pollution from aviation.

Ten environmental groups wrote in a letter to Representatives on Friday that the bill would worsen air pollution and make it impossible for U.S.-based airlines to provide service to and from Europe.

The groups, including EDF, ActionAid USA, Earthjustice, Environment America, Greenpeace USA, League of Conservation Voters, Natural Resources Defense Council, Oxfam America, Sierra Club, and World Wildlife Fund, said the House bill is “premised on fundamentally erroneous legal and policy assumptions,” because:

Contrary to the bill’s assumptions, the Aviation Directive is carefully crafted to fall well within the requirements of international law (and has been upheld as such in a rigorously reasoned preliminary decision of the European Court of Justice). It is non-discriminatory and applies even-handedly to all flights landing in or departing from EU airports regardless of origin or destination, and to the operators of those flights regardless of the airline’s home country. The program requires a 3% emissions reduction (compared to a 2004-2006 baseline) by 2013, and a 5% reduction by 2020; it is flexible in design, giving airlines multiple compliance options to meet these emissions control obligations. Moreover, flights arriving from countries with programs equivalent to the EU’s are exempted altogether.

House bill could make U.S. airlines outlaws, start trade war

In a statement after tonight’s vote, EDF’s International Counsel Annie Petsonk said the House’s passing this law could turn U.S. airlines into outlaws and ignite a trade war:

‪The House passing this bill is like another nation saying, ‘We don’t care if the U.S. has a law enacted by Congress and upheld by the U.S. courts — we’re going to prohibit our companies from complying.’  It’s unlikely that our Congress would let that kind of action go without retaliation. ‪

This bill could ignite a trade war that would put tens of thousands of U.S. jobs in jeopardy.  By barring U.S.-based airlines from complying with applicable law for flights traveling to EU airports, this bill would compel those airlines either to drop their EU routes or become scofflaws.  ‪It’s bizarre Congress would knowingly pass a law that compels U.S.-based airlines to become outlaws when they do business in the EU.

The bill now heads to the Senate, where there is no companion bill.

Meanwhile, three U.S. airlines — United/Continental and American — and their trade association, Air Transport Association of America (ATA), have also challenged the legality of the EU law in Europe’s highest court. EDF, in partnership with US and European environmental organizations, has intervened in support of the EU law.

The European Court of Justice’s Advocate General released a preliminary opinion at the beginning of this month advising that the airlines’ challenge had no merit, which EDF and our fellow co-intervenors called an “encouraging development.”  On Oct. 6, when the opinion came out, Petsonk said:

Airlines operate in a global market, and the reality is that those markets will be increasingly carbon-constrained. It’s time for the U.S. airlines to provide leadership and demonstrate that we can compete in the carbon-limited markets of the 21st century. No lawsuit will stop climate change or its effects, so it’s time to move forward and implement the solutions already available: Europe’s Aviation Directive.

The European Court of Justice is anticipated to issue its final ruling sometime in the beginning of next year.

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