Lots of interesting testimony at today’s Senate Commerce Committee hearing on climate change and transportation. Discussion subjects ranged widely, from surface transportation to the possibility of shipping in the Arctic. “The transportation sector accounts for approximately one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions,” announced committee chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii). He added that GHG emissions from transportation are projected by the EPA to increase by 26 percent by 2020.
The first panel featured several government officials. Deputy Secretary of Transportation Thomas J. Barrett said that DOT is working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — without compromising the “indispensable role” that transportation plays in the U.S. economy. He touted increased CAFE standards (only to be chided later by John Kerry [D-Mass.] for the administration’s foot-dragging on CAFE). Barrett emphasized the role of markets in the DOT’s transportation planning. “Markets provide strong incentives for improving efficiency,” he said. Market-oriented devices like runway slot auctions or highway tolling theoretically reduce congestion. Less congestion means less fuel consumed, which means fewer GHG emissions. Barrett spoke about a DOT’s across-all-modes experiments with “direct user fees and more congestion pricing.” For more information on these initiatives, along with some critical voices, see this WaPo article. “One study found that congestion pricing reduced emissions up to 10 percent in the aggregate and as much as 30 percent in high pollution areas.”
Barrett touted the airline industry’s sometimes surprising success in reducing emissions: “Aviation is a somewhat unheralded but real success story in these programs.” He urged Congress to exercise caution in “not hampering” the industry as it weighs GHG regulations. As for further improvements, Barrett claimed that the FAA is moving to accelerate its air traffic management improvements “to make it more NowGen than NextGen.” Some of these changes are already coming on line.
The other speakers on the first panel were James Turner of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, who listed research projects NIST is undertaking to contribute to understanding and mitigating transportation’s effect on the climate, such as research into composite and other lightweight materials; and Thomas Peterson of the National Climatic Data Center. Peterson listed several effects of climate change on transportation and discussed adaptation strategies, few of which much affect aviation.
During Q&A, Barrett was skeptical of cap-and-trade regimes for transportation emissions. Mobile sources of emissions are different than power plants, he said: “If we carelessly impose cap-and-trade regimes on transportation, it can have a negative effect.” He concluded that “cap and trade in transportation is very treacherous and needs to be looked at closely.”
Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.) was concerned that congestion pricing would price some segments of the public out of transportation. Carper takes the train into Washington every day from his home in Delaware, and he described how he has convenient access to the eastern seaboard by rail and, from Baltimore-Washington International Airport’s integrated Amtrak station, access to a wide range of flights. But, he said, people in most parts of the country don’t have this sort of access. Although he disclaimed hostility to congestion pricing, he wondered what would be done if such pricing means these citizens can’t afford to fly or drive? Barrett replied that Congestion pricing “creates funds to invest in other alternatives.”
The second panel was represented by sector-specific individuals: a state highway official, an expert on climate-change adaptation, someone from the Union of Concerned Scientists, a proponent of Arctic shipping, and trade association reps from the airline and railroad industries.
John Meenan, the vice president and COO of the Air Transport Association, trumpeted aviation’s “outstanding record” of greenhouse gas efficiency. He also said that the ATA’s members are pledged to increase fuel efficiency (i.e., reduce GHG emissions) by 30 percent by 2025. But that won’t be enough, he said, for airlines to weather the “crippling fuel crisis” that Northwest Airlines CEO Doug Steenland blamed yesterday on oil futures speculation. With fuel costs rising far faster than airlines can raise fares, “we have an unrelenting economic imperative to reduce fuel consumption.”
Meenan also touted aviation’s comparative success in improving efficiency: “While commercial aviation improved its per-passenger fuel efficiency from 1990, freight trucks showed the reverse trend, with GHG emissions growing faster than vehicle miles traveled. EPA also has confirmed that passenger vehicles have lagged far behind aircraft in fuel and GHG efficiency.”
He pleaded with the committee not to burden the industry any further:
[Congress] must forbear from adopting climate change policies that would further exacerbate the fuel price crisis. While the Senate recently declined to go forward with the GHG cap-and-trade program proposed in the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, which would have applied an additional fuel surcharge on airlines’ jet fuel, we understand that many in Congress still are interested in applying such proposals to aviation. Not only is an additional “price signal” unnecessary for our industry, but recent events have shown the crippling effects that exorbitant fuel prices can have. We urge Congress to avoid counterproductive, punitive approaches that further siphon away funds that the airlines otherwise could use to invest in newer aircraft and other fuel- and GHG-savings measures.