US environmental groups say the proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to adopt the ICAO CO2 standards for aircraft into US regulations violates the nation’s Clean Air Act because it fails to reduce greenhouse gas emissions despite the EPA’s findings that such emissions endanger public health and welfare. Moreover, they say, the proposal’s failure to consider the statutory factors laid out in the Act or analyse the costs and benefits of a range of possible emission standards, and refusal to select an alternative based on the evidence before the agency was “arbitrary and capricious”. The groups were responding to a public comment period just closed on the proposal, which has been largely supported by US aerospace and airline sectors. Although the majority of aircraft will not be subject to the standards until January 2028, the industry is calling for finalisation of its domestic adoption by the end of this year.
The aircraft CO2 standards were adopted by the ICAO Council in March 2017 and are contained in Annex 16 of the Chicago Convention. It applies to new aircraft type designs from 2020 and to aircraft type designs already in production as of 2023. Those in-production aircraft which by 2028 do not meet the standards will no longer be able to be produced unless their designs are sufficiently modified. The EPA and FAA represented the United States on ICAO’s environmental protection committee CAEP, which drew up the standards.
After legal challenges by environmental groups, in 2016 the EPA issued findings that within the meaning of section 231 of the Clean Air Act, elevated concentrations of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the atmosphere endangered the public health and welfare of current and future generations, and that GHG emissions from certain classes of engines used in certain aircraft are contributing to the air pollution that endangers public health and welfare.
As such, the EPA is proposing to regulate GHG emissions from covered airplanes through the adoption of domestic GHG regulations that match ICAO’s international CO2 standards. Covered airplanes are civil subsonic jet aircraft with a MTOM greater than 5,700 kgs and larger civil subsonic turboprop airplanes with a MTOM greater than 8,618 kgs. It proposes to adopt the ICAO CO2 metric, which measures fuel efficiency, for demonstrating compliance with the GHG emissions standards. The metric is a mathematical function that incorporates the specific air range (SAR) of an airplane/engine combination – a traditional measure of airplane cruise performance in units of km/kg of fuel – and the reference geometric factor (RGF), a measure of fuselage size.
To measure airplane fuel efficiency, the EPA is proposing to adopt the ICAO test procedures whereby the SAR value is measured in three specific operating test points, and a composite of those results used in the metric to determine compliance with the proposed GHG standards. In order to be consistent with the current annual reporting requirement for engine emissions, the EPA is also proposing to require the annual reporting of the number of airplanes produced, airplane characteristics and test parameters.
The EPA says US manufacturers have already developed or are developing technologies that will allow affected airplanes to comply with the ICAO standards, in advance of its adoption, and it anticipates nearly all affected airplanes to be compliant by the respective dates for new type designs and for in-production airplanes. This includes the expectation that existing in-production airplanes that are non-compliant will either be modified and re-certificated as compliant or will likely go out of production before the production compliance date of 1 January 2028.
“For these reasons, the EPA is not projecting emission reductions associated with these proposed GHG regulations,” it states in the executive summary of the proposed rule.
The EPA held a virtual public hearing on September 17, with participation from aircraft and engine manufacturers, aerospace and airline industry associations, environmental organisations and other interested parties. Over 120 written public comments have been submitted in response to the proposal by the October 19 closing date.
A coalition of environmental groups that first filed a suit against the EPA over a decade ago to force the agency to address GHG emissions from aircraft said the proposal violated section 231 of the Clean Air Act (CAA) as it failed to reduce GHG emissions from aircraft despite the EPA’s own endangerment findings.
“Moreover, the proposal’s failure to consider the statutory factors laid out in section 231, over-reliance on factors outside the statute, failure to analyse the costs and benefits of a sufficient range of possible emission standards, and refusal to select an alternative based on the evidence before the agency are arbitrary and capricious,” says the submission by Earthjustice, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth and Natural Resources Defense Council.
“These flaws cannot be remedied in a final rule. Instead, EPA must replace the proposal with one that meets its duties under the Clean Air Act. The final regulations must employ strong mechanisms to reduce emissions from aircraft and protect the public health and welfare and in doing so, EPA must consider the full panoply of available measures, including declining fleetwide emissions averages and operational and design improvements.
“To avoid catastrophic climate change, EPA must implement standards that far exceeds ICAO’s standards in both stringency and scope.”
The submission dismisses the EPA’s argument that US manufacturers would be at a competitive disadvantage if the US failed to adopt standards in line with ICAO’s. “EPA provides no legitimate basis for this assertion. Nothing prevents the US from adopting standards that are more stringent than ICAO’s and EPA has responsibility to do so if that is what public health and environmental protection require.”
Commenting on its own submission, Annie Petsonk, International Counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund, said: “As EPA’s own analysis indicates, the proposed standards will not drive emissions down. It simply embodies what the industry has already baked in. To justify its approach, EPA relied on a problematic estimate of the costs of doing nothing, arbitrarily ignoring the real costs of climate pollution that people across the country are facing every day.
“As the aviation industry tries to bounce back from Covid, it must put addressing the climate crisis at the core of its recovery, and government needs to lead the way. A stringent aircraft pollution standard would mean jobs building the aircraft and creating the fuels of the future. Instead, EPA’s proposed aircraft rule ignores the science and contravenes laws that require it to protect public health and the environment.
“We urge EPA to replace its proposal with standards that will actually reduce aircraft emissions, as one key element of a broader package of carrots and sticks to get the aviation industry to take real steps to cut climate pollution.”
In its submission to the EPA, the non-profit environmental research organisation International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) said its analysis showed new deliveries of commercial aircraft in 2019 were on average 6% more fuel efficient than required by the ICAO standards.
With some caveats, the industry response to the EPA’s proposal is supportive of legislation in line with ICAO CO2 standards, which it sees as meeting the criteria set out in the CAA’s section 231.
“Adopting the standards into US law will ensure US-manufactured aircraft and engines are available to US airlines, while fostering global competition and enabling our airlines to acquire aircraft and aircraft engines at market-driven, competitive prices,” says a joint submission by Airlines for America and the Air Lines Pilots Association International. “Especially given that, as the agency itself notes, other ICAO member states that certify airplanes have already adopted the ICAO CO2 standards, the agency needs to act to put US manufacturers on the same footing as their foreign counterparts.”
The two trade bodies said the ICAO standards would achieve GHG emissions reductions, support US policies to combat climate change and provide international uniformity. “Aircraft and the international airspace system simply could not function if aircraft and aircraft engines were subject to disparate regulatory requirements and standards.”
However, they asked the EPA to clarify in its rulemaking that the proposed US standards did not apply to in-service aircraft and disagreed with the agency’s conclusion that there could be no costs or benefits attributable to the standards.
A submission by the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) said its members had already taken steps to ensure compliance with the proposed standards, including making plans to end production of the least fuel-efficient aircraft.
“The majority of aircraft will not be subject to the standards until 1 January 2028. Nevertheless, we urge the EPA to finalise the domestic adoption of these rules by the end of this year,” said the AIA. “Airlines purchase aircraft several years in advance. They are currently deciding on aircraft that will be delivered through the end of this decade. When making these decisions, airlines will require assurances that aircraft meet the standards to operate in international markets.
“Without domestic regulations in place, the FAA would be unable to certify an aircraft as meeting the ICAO CO2 standards. In this situation, US manufacturers would be at a serious competitive disadvantage if airlines were to seek greater regulatory certainty by opting to purchase aircraft manufactured elsewhere that meet the requirements of their certifying authority’s equivalent rules, which have already been implemented in some cases.
“If this was to occur, it could jeopardise tens of billions of dollars in sales for the US aerospace industry.”
Engine manufacturer GE said the proposed rule would provide the global aviation industry with much-needed certainty and consistency as it faced the Covid crisis and its adoption would satisfy US obligations under the Chicago Convention by ensuring compliance with ICAO standards.
GE also argued that more stringent GHG standards were not appropriate and would potentially violate the Clean Air Act.
“The CAA does not require the EPA to ‘technology force’ at the risk of flight safety,” said the submission. “[It] requires EPA to refrain from changing aircraft emission standards if such a change would adversely affect safety. To maintain the trust and confidence of the flying public, it is imperative that EPA not adopt standards that could in any way be perceived as sacrificing aviation safety. The perception of the flying public matters and EPA should endeavour to avoid any erosion of public confidence in the safety of aviation. This objective is best achieved by EPA remaining aligned with the ICAO analytical criteria of technical feasibility, environmental benefit, cost effectiveness and impacts of interdependencies, which have helped ensure the continuation of aviation’s impressive safety record.
“Moreover, when preparing this proposal, EPA carefully analysed the impacts of two more stringent alternatives. These analyses show that the alternatives would lead to minimal reduction in GHG emissions, while imposing significant costs associated with deviating from the ICAO standards. Consequently, EPA appropriately decided against proposing either of these alternatives.”
While supportive of aligning EPA regulations with the ICAO CO2 standard, both Boeing and Airbus are opposed to the reporting requirements laid out in the proposal. Boeing said they were unnecessary as they were duplicative of FAA reporting requirements, “and unwise because they pose unnecessary risks to Boeing’s confidential business information and potentially the nation’s security.”
The concerns are centred on fears the EPA could make public manufacturers’ specific air range data.
“SAR data is highly sensitive, treated by Boeing and other airplane manufacturers as a trade secret and protected zealously from disclosure to competitors and the public,” says the Boeing submission. “because of the strategic value of SAR data, it can also be subject to federal export controls and sanction regimes.
“There is also a risk that someone could wrongly argue that SAR data should be considered to be emissions data or ‘related technical information’ that EPA must disclose. EPA should not collect SAR data … and should not require reporting of that data. If it nonetheless requires reporting of SAR data then EPA must ensure that data is protected from public disclosure.
“EPA need not collect SAR data to track airplane CO2 emissions performance and verify compliance. ICAO agreed to the use and public reporting of an aircraft’s [fuel efficiency] metric value for this purpose because it is sufficient by itself to enable assessment of compliance with the CO2 emissions standard, while continuing to maintain the confidentiality of manufacturers’ SAR data. Significantly, ICAO does not require public reporting of RGF – an important element of SAR data – precisely because it can be used to derive an airplane’s SAR.”
Airbus too said SAR data and the reference geometric factor were highly commercially sensitive information. It also questioned the EPA’s authority to request such information when a large number of airplanes delivered around the world would never operate within the United States.
“ICAO is the right body to create international standards,” said the Airbus submission. “Airbus believes that in the absence of a worldwide harmonisation process, regional requirements could produce unintended consequences that would harm the aviation industry. We therefore urge the EPA to adopt the proposed ICAO rule with no additional requirements.”
The ICAO Aircraft CO2 standards are contained in Volume III to Annex 16 of the Chicago Convention and were adopted in Europe by the European Parliament and Council in July 2018 (Regulation (EU) No. 2018/1139). The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) published certification specifications concerning the standard in August 2019.