The House voted Monday to exclude U.S. airlines from an emissions cap-and-trade program that the European Union plans to impose on all airlines flying to and from the continent beginning next year.
With the legislation, which passed by voice vote, lawmakers joined the airline industry and the Obama administration in opposing the EU Emissions Trading Scheme scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1. The bill now goes to the Senate, where there is currently no companion legislation.
The measure directs the transportation secretary to prohibit U.S. carriers from participating in the program if it is unilaterally imposed. It also tells other federal agencies to take steps necessary to ensure that U.S. carriers are not penalized by the emissions control scheme.
The EU program began in 2005 with the capping of carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, refineries, steel mills and other industrial producers. Next year it extends to airlines, which are said to be responsible for about 3 percent of greenhouse gases.
Under the program, similar to the cap-and-trade concept that President Barack Obama unsuccessfully tried to move through Congress, each airliner is issued permits to emit a certain amount of carbon dioxide. They can buy extra credits if they emit more than their allowed limit, or sell credits if they emit less. Payments would be made to the EU country to which they most frequently fly.
The EU says the costs to airlines will be modest and will have minimal impact on passenger fares. The U.S. aviation industry says the cost between 2012 and 2020 could hit $3.1 billion. It says it is unfair that a flight from the United States, for example from Los Angeles, would have to pay for emissions for all parts of flights to Europe, including time spent over the United States and the Atlantic.
"It's a tax grab by the European Union," Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., said. "The meter starts running the minute the plane departs from any point in the U.S. until it reaches Europe."
In 2009, American, United and Continental Airlines and the Air Transport Association of America filed suit in a case now before the European Court of Justice, arguing that the unilateral imposition of emissions rules violates international aviation agreements.
They received a setback earlier this month when the court's advocate general, a legal adviser, in a non-binding statement said the EU emissions trading scheme is compatible with international law and urged the court to reject the U.S. challenge.
That drew fire from Krishna R. Urs, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of State for transportation affairs, who repeated the U.S.'s "strong legal and policy objections to the inclusion of flights by non-EU carriers" in the EU program.
The Air Transport Association said that preliminary opinion "does not mark the end of this case" and noted that more than 20 countries, including Brazil, Russia, India, China and Japan, oppose the EU plan.
"It imposes an exorbitant tax that siphons away from aviation the very funds it needs to continue to invest in aircraft technology, sustainable alternative fuels and infrastructure advances," the ATA said.
Mica, who recently led a delegation to the International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal, said ICAO member nations next month will overwhelmingly approve a measure opposing the EU's carbon trading system.
"This shouldn't lead to a trade war," Mica said. "It should lead to a resolution that does improve our environment."
One of the few voices of dissent came from Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who said the United States also passes laws that dictate security and pollution standards for foreign ships and planes entering U.S. territory. "The Europeans are taking climate change seriously. We shouldn't undermine their efforts by legislating that our airlines break the law."
The bill is H.R. 2594