Court Rules EPA Must Act on Aircraft Emissions

Environmental groups’ suit for action on marine, aircraft and non-road emissions moves forward


Sarah Burt, Earthjustice, (510) 599-8573


Vera Pardee, Center for Biological Diversity, (858) 717-1448


Marcie Keever, Friends of the Earth, (415) 544-0790, ext. 223

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must formally determine whether greenhouse gas pollution from aircraft endangers human health and welfare, ruled a U.S. District Court today.

In denying in part the EPA’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Oceana, Friends of the Earth, the Center for Food Safety, and the International Center for Technology Assessment, the court’s ruling finds that as a matter of law, the EPA must move forward under the Clean Air Act to address greenhouse emissions from aircraft. The environmental groups’ suit to compel the EPA to respond to their petitions for action on climate pollution from ships and non-road vehicles and engines will now move forward, with the court to rule on the issue of when the EPA must act at a later date.

The court determined unequivocally that Congress “intended to mandate a certain outcome—the regulation of harmful aircraft emissions.” Permitting the EPA to avoid making a determination of whether climate pollutants from aircraft are harmful to humans would “allow … EPA to shirk its duty to combat air pollution.”

The environmental groups petitioned the EPA to regulate climate pollution from ships, aircraft and nonroad vehicles and engines in late 2007 and early 2008. More than three years later, the EPA has taken no action. On June 11, 2010, a day after the U.S. Senate voted to uphold the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases, Earthjustice filed suit challenging the agency’s unreasonable delay in responding to the petitions and making formal findings concerning the harm caused by climate pollution from these sources.

“We are happy with today’s order. The court has made clear that the EPA has a mandatory obligation to conduct an endangerment finding for aviation emissions,” said Sarah Burt, an Earthjustice attorney. “Although the court determined the EPA has greater discretion regarding marine and nonroad emissions, Judge Kennedy emphasized that this discretion is not unfettered. We will continue to work to compel the EPA to act as soon as possible on marine and nonroad sources of pollution as well as aircraft emissions.”

“Climate change is not a threat in the distant future—it’s already happening all around us,” said Vera Pardee, a lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity. “But greenhouse gas pollution from aircraft, ships and nonroad engines and vessels increasing—and increasing its contribution to climate change—even though technologies exist to reduce it. Today’s ruling establishes once again that the Clean Air Act is an effective tool that the EPA must employ to prevent even greater damage from these harmful emissions.”

“The evidence of climate change is becoming clearer each and every day,” said Marcie Keever, oceans and vessels project director for Friends of the Earth. “We are encouraged by the court’s decision that EPA cannot continue its refusal to address important and growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Aircraft, ship and nonroad vehicles and engines are major contributors to global warming pollution. Together they are responsible for approximately 25 percent of U.S. mobile-source greenhouse gas emissions, and they additionally emit approximately 290,000 tons of soot every year. Pollution from these sources is projected to grow rapidly over coming decades. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, greenhouse gas emissions from domestic aircraft are expected to increase 60 percent by 2025 and worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide from aircraft engines will more than triple by mid-century. Annual U.S. shipping emissions alone are equivalent to the emissions from 130–195 million cars and are on track to triple over the next 20 years.

Read the opinion.

Additional Resources

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people's health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.