Trump Administration Sued for Withholding Documents Related to Airline Emissions

The Center for Biological Diversity has sued the Trump administration for refusing to release public records related to the government’s failure to develop greenhouse gas emission standards for airplanes as required by the Clean Air Act.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in D.C. and seeks emails and other documents from the U.S. Department of State, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency about potential U.S. airplane emission standards and participation in the U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) carbon dioxide rulemaking process. Documents sought include communications between U.S. officials and airlines or airplane manufacturers like Boeing.

The Center requested the documents under the Freedom of Information Act in February 2018 but the Trump administration has yet to comply.

“Americans deserve to know what backroom deals might be killing efforts to curb dangerous airplane pollution,” said Bill Snape, senior counsel at the Center’s Climate Law Institute. “By shirking its legal duty to address airplane emissions, the Trump administration is slipping the aviation industry a free pass to dirty our air and heat up the planet.”

Airplanes are the third-largest source of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, and their emissions are rising steeply. The industry is expected to generate 43 metric gigatons of CO2 through 2050, consuming more than 4 percent of the world’s remaining carbon budget, according to a Center report.

In 2010 the Center and allies successfully sued to compel the EPA to determine whether airplane emissions endanger human health and welfare. In June 2015 the EPA issued its finding that airplane greenhouse gas emissions drive climate change and endanger public health and welfare. This determination requires officials to set limitations on airplane pollution under the Clean Air Act.

In March 2017 ICAO agreed to aircraft emission standards, though they fall short even of what the industry is projected to achieve already. If the U.S. does not set standards at least as stringent as those of the international community, U.S. manufacturers must seek hard-to-get exemptions for their airplanes to fly internationally, unless their planes comply with the ICAO standards voluntarily.

A report by the International Council on Clean Transportation found that between 2014 and 2016, the U.S. domestic airline industry’s fuel use increased by 7 percent, dwarfing efficiency gains of 3 percent. The industry’s profits increased nearly sixfold between 2012 and 2016. The report further found that airlines could cut fuel use and carbon pollution by more than a quarter by investing in newer, more efficient planes and adopting greater passenger density.

“The aviation industry’s supposed commitment to reducing its own carbon footprint is clearly a sham,” Snape said. “That’s why we need strong federal climate rules that actually cut airplanes’ skyrocketing emissions.” 

New green fuels are needed for air transportation but little or no research is being done by the industry or government and instead a posture of disinformation and obfuscation has been taken.

Russia flew its first hydrogen powered plane in 1989 but the collapse of communism put an end to further development. The prototype plane was built by Tupolev and was the first experimental aircraft in the world operating on liquid hydrogen.

The German made HY4 hydrogen powered plane has a motor output of 80 kilowatts, a maximum speed of approximately 200 kilometres per hour and a cruising speed of 145 kilometres per hour with a range up to 1500 kilometres.

The hydrogen powered HY4. Photo: DLR