Carbon Restrictions Poised to Take Wing

European Union seeks caps on aircraft emissions

The biggest hurdle in developing alternative fuels might be weight. Ethanol is heavier than kerosene and contains less energy per gallon, so a plane would have to carry more.

The U.N. panel acknowledged such challenges in its 2007 report, saying, "There would not appear to be any practical alternatives to kerosene-based fuels for commercial jet aircraft for the next several decades."

One way for airlines and government agencies to pare both fuel consumption and emissions would be to reduce traffic congestion in the air and on airport runways. The industry says such steps should be taken before imposing cap-and-trade restrictions.

Modern-day air traffic control is based on 1950s technology that requires aircraft to fly between radar beacons. The FAA is in the early stages of moving to a satellite-based air traffic control system that would allow aircraft to fly in a straighter line, saving time and fuel.

Then there are tarmac delays that leave planes idling at terminal gates or on taxiways, burning fuel. According to the International Air Transport Association, global carbon dioxide emissions could be cut by 12 percent if air traffic control systems were more efficient.

Although Europe is moving forward on greenhouse gas emission controls, no congressional action affecting aircraft or emissions generally is expected during the remaining year of the Bush administration.

Still, Sen. Frank J. Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, is developing a proposal that would place aviation under a cap-and-trade system, although it has not been introduced. On Nov. 1, a Senate subcommittee approved a bill that would require electric utilities, transportation companies and manufacturers to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, but that would affect aviation only indirectly, mainly through fuel costs.

Subcommittee approval was hard-won, however, and the bill's future is uncertain.

Ken Button, director of George Mason University's Center for Transportation Policy, Operations and Logistics and an expert in international aviation, said cap-and-trade proposals such as the one the EU wants to institute are a good idea and that such a system is largely the reason why tetraethyl lead was forced out of gasoline in the 1970s. He suggested that cap and trade, if implemented properly, could work the same way with greenhouse gases.

"Markets certainly do work, providing that everything is included in the market. The problem of course is that damage from greenhouse gases is not something in the market," Button said. "The cap-and-trade system tries to bring it into the market. Cap and trade is going to have less impact on a good airline than a bad airline."

Senate greenhouse gas bill, CQ Weekly, p. 3342; energy policy, p. 2920; international airline routes, p. 2514.

Source: CQ Weekly The definitive source for news about Congress. ©2007 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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