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Native Sun News: Sen. Thune bill thwarts air pollution controls

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

Passengers deplane from U.S. air carriers at Frankfurt International Airport. U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., is trying to deflect a $3 European pollution-control fee on trans-Atlantic air fares.

Thune gains ground with bill to thwart international air pollution controls
Story and photo by
Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., gained ground July 31 in a drive to shield U.S. companies from Europe’s rules for international air traffic pollution control.

After taking testimony from the South Dakota senator and witnesses he assembled, the chair of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee sent Thune’s “European Union Emissions Trading Scheme Prohibition Act of 2011” (S1956) to the full Senate. If the bill passes, it will be matched with companion legislation that the lower chamber of the U.S. Congress approved late last year.

The European Union (EU) began levying the equivalent of $2-$3 per fare on trans-Atlantic flights in January to finance airplane emissions control measures. Thune called that “taxation without representation” in his testimony to the committee.

“Practically speaking, this means U.S. airlines and passengers will be forced to pay a climate-change tax for flights originating in or destined for the E.U.,” Thune wrote in an opinion piece. “The E.U. has no authority to impose a tax on Americans flying in American or other non-E.U. international airspace,” he contended.

The Thune bill would allow the secretary of the Transportation Department to prohibit U.S. aircraft operators from participating in the European Union Emissions Trading System (EU ETS).

More than a dozen organizations actively opposing Thune’s measure said that S1956 “would set a disturbing precedent undermining the rule of law and exacerbating the likelihood of an aviation trade war by seeking to undercut European anti-pollution law governing flights to, from, and within Europe.”

“We strongly oppose inclusion of such provisions in any bill under consideration in the Senate or House,” they said in a letter to senators.

Signing it were the nonprofits 350.org, Center for Biological Diversity, Climate Solutions, Earthjustice, Environmental Defense Fund, Environment Northeast, Environment America, Greenpeace USA,League of Conservation Voters, Natural Resources Defense Council, Oxfam America, Sierra Club, US Climate Action Network and World Wildlife Fund US.

The conservation groups are concerned about holding the line on smog. “With yesterday’s vote, another day passes without the actions we need to reduce carbon emissions from the U.S. aviation industry,” said Keya Chatterjee, international climate policy director at World Wildlife Fund.

They pointed to a study by the Blue Skies Project of the Center for American Progress and Climate Advisers, which notes that the inclusion of airplanes in the European Emissions Trading System is one of the biggest controversies in the world, not just a concern of the United States.

“The European law would drive significant emissions reductions, lowering carbon dioxide emissions by 70 million tons per year – equivalent to taking 30 million cars off the road. These climate benefits are achieved at almost no cost, increasing trans-Atlantic ticket prices by an average of only $3. Additionally, recent studies demonstrate that the law would actually make American airlines more profitable,” the study notes. According to its own description, the Blue Skies Project is a collaborative research initiative that provides outreach for making decisions on safe, affordable, secure and clean aviation.

The European Union included the aviation industry in the Emissions Trading System because the sector is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions, representing 3 percent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and potentially increasing by 290 percent to 667 percent by 2050. Airplanes also emit water vapor, soot, nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur oxides ( SOx) and black carbon, which contribute to greenhouse warming.

Airlines for America (A4A), the trade organization of the leading U.S. airlines, commended the Commerce Committee for approving A4A in coordination with 18 other industry groups. A4A called on the United States to file an Article 84 action under the 1944 U.N. Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation in order to overturn the air traffic provisions of the EU ETS and compel the European Union to negotiate a resolution.

The U.N. International Civil Aviation Organization has authority to address violations of the Chicago Convention and also is working to complete the global framework for aviation greenhouse gas emissions provisionally agreed to at its 2010 Assembly, A4A noted in a statement issued July 31.

“The (Commerce) Committee’s approval sends a strong message to the administration and the EU that Congress objects to this unilateral taxation scheme that will not benefit the environment, and A4A urges the full Senate to take immediate action,” said A4A president and CEO Nicholas E. Calio. “Diplomacy is not working, and we encourage the administration to file a legal challenge, forcing the EU to work toward a global sectoral approach through the International Civil Aviation Organization.”

In addition to A4A, Thune’s backers include: the Air Line Pilots Association, American Society of Travel Agents, Cargo Airline Association, General Aviation Manufacturers Association, International Air Transport Association, Interactive Travel Services Association, National Air Carrier Association, Regional Airline Association and the U.S. Travel Association. Among other supporters are Americans for Prosperity, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, and United Airlines.

In Commerce Committee testimony, the organizations stressed the burdens already carried by airlines, including administrative expenses and fuel price hikes.

Thune said in his opinion piece that the European fee “would cost the American airline industry more than $3.1 billion between 2012 and 2020, money which could otherwise be used for the creation of nearly 40,000 U.S. jobs. We should not be allowing other countries to make it more difficult for American companies to create American jobs,” he added.

However, according to the nonprofit Center for International Policy, the Thune bill would cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $22 billion over the next eight years by requiring the government to bail out airlines for penalties associated with noncompliance with the EU law. The cost of impounded airlines and lost revenues could run many billions more, it said in a written statement.

“At a time when climate change-induced extreme weather is causing higher food prices and economic pain for Americans, airlines want taxpayers to bail them out for breaking Europe’s common sense climate law,” said policy center analyst Glenn Hurowitz. “Could they get more greedy?”

By making it illegal for a U.S. company to comply with another country's law, the bill could open the door for other countries to pass similar prohibitions on complying with U.S. laws that have impacts abroad, Hurowitz warned.

He cited examples of U.S. laws that could be undermined in retaliation, including post-9/11 airport and airplane security regulations, sanctions against Iran and Syria, banking and financial regulations, and measures allowing the freezing of terrorist and other money-laundered assets.

Thune’s initiative would drive a legal wedge between the United States and its closest allies, making cooperation more difficult on key issues such as the conflict in Syria, the European debt crisis and accelerating global economic growth,” Hurowitz said.

Concurring with him in a written statement, Earthjustice Senior Legislative Representative Sarah Saylor said her organization is calling on senators “to carefully weigh the evidence on this issue. The U.S. should be on the forefront of effective negotiations addressing climate pollution from aviation sources, not looking for an escape hatch,” she added.

Thune serves as ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee's Aviation Operations, Safety and Security Subcommittee.

(Contact Talli Nauman at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

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