In two very different ways on Tuesday, Washington will seek to solve a climate-change and sovereign-law conundrum created by its usual European allies across the Atlantic.
The Senate Commerce Committee is scheduled to vote on Tuesday afternoon on bipartisan legislation that would make it illegal for U.S. airlines to comply with a European Union requirement that all airlines flying in or out of Europe pay for the greenhouse-gas emissions that come from those flights. In effect, airlines would be forced to calculate all the carbon-dioxide emissions emanating from their European flights and buy credits for the emissions on the EU’s cap-and-trade exchange.
According to the EU law, which went into effect at the beginning of this year but won’t substantively affect airlines until next May, airlines would have to account for greenhouse-gas emissions on their entire flights, and not just the portions in European air space.
Also on Tuesday, the State and Transportation departments will begin two days of meetings with 16 other non-EU nations to try to find a global substitution to the EU law. Most countries outside the European Union, including the United States, oppose the EU law based on foreign-policy and legal grounds unrelated to global warming.
“The unilateral imposition of the [European cap-and-trade law] is creating huge antagonism all around the world,” said a senior State Department official during a background briefing on Monday. “We would say it’s the wrong way to pursue the right objective.… We endorse the policy of reducing emissions.”
The Obama administration is trying to walk a fine line between opposing the EU law and staying clear of congressional efforts to make it illegal to comply. It has made clear that it does not support Senate legislation mirroring a measure that passed the House last year that is expected to be voted by the Commerce Committee on Tuesday.
The bill, sponsored by Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota and Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, is not expected to get a full vote in the Senate. But if it passes the Commerce Committee — which is possible — it could send a strong rebuke to the EU about its emissions law as it pertains to the United States. Democrats voting against it will likely base their opposition on foreign-policy grounds and de-emphasize the impact on global warming.
Aircraft are believed to contribute a scant 3 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide. But the debate over the EU law epitomizes the repercussions individual countries face amid the continual failure of climate negotiators to reach a global agreement to address climate change.
Meanwhile, the broader Senate remains fixated on a more fundamental element of climate change: The science.
In a floor speech on Monday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., lambasted Senate Environment and Public Works ranking member James Inhofe, R-Okla., for his position denying that global warming exists. Inhofe took to the floor after Sanders to defend his position.
This back-and-forth will take center stage again at a Wednesday hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on climate-change science.