originally published in GRIP

In a memorable TV ad saluting the hard work of Olympic athletes, swimmer Ryan Lochte reveals how he made it to the Games in London:  “I swam here.”

That would be one way to avoid the modest cost of carbon pollution permits required for aviation under the EU’s Emission Trading System.

Senator John Thune has a less strenuous approach:  ban U.S. airlines from participating in the system. His European Union Emissions Trading Scheme Prohibition Act (S. 1956), passed by the Senate Commerce Committee yesterday, would authorize the Secretary of Transportation to do just that.

Now, it’s one thing to stand on the sidelines of the global campaign for climate solutions with your arms folded, as our federal government has mostly done for the last 15 years.  It’s another thing to throw tomatoes at the players.  That’s pretty much what S. 1956 is about.

The EU wisely decided to include aviation – one of the fastest growing carbon emission sources – in its ETS.  The system limits dangerous carbon pollution and requires large emitters to have permits for the amount they produce.  The number of permits declines over time – as carbon emissions must.  Air travel is conspicuous carbon consumption; exempting it would be a bit like allowing Ferraris to ignore speed limits.

The cost of these permits would amount to about $6 for a round-trip flight from Washington D.C. to Copenhagen.  The ticket for that same flight on United this last April would have included a “fuel surcharge” of $496, according to testimony submitted by Annie Petsonk of the Environmental Defense Fund in answer to questions posed by Senator Maria Cantwell.    (Annie’s testimony is here.)

Since the emission limits incentivize cost-effective efficiency improvements in aviation, they reduce the risk of these large fuel surcharges.  But increasing Americans’ exposure to the growing costs of oil dependence is apparently not too high a price to pay for the Senate to flip the bird at Europe’s climate policy.  This is particularly ironic/obnoxious, since the premier U.S. commercial airplane manufacturer, Boeing, is committed to leading the industry in efficient aviation technology and lower carbon fuels.

Senators Kerry and Boxer salvaged a little something out of this exercise in international nose-thumbing, adding an amendment that would require U.S. negotiators to achieve a global approach to reducing airline emissions through the International Civil Aviation Organization.

As Senator Kerry put it, S. 1956 amounts to “authorizing through legislation the ability for U.S. companies to break the law of another country.”  Not content to make America an international scofflaw and climate heckler, the bill would direct the Secretary of Transportation to hold U.S. airlines harmless for any penalties associated with their non-compliance.  The airlines, of course, wouldn’t have it any other way.  That could put U.S. taxpayers on the hook for about $22 billion by 2020, according to EDF.   (You’d think that for that kind of money, someone would have offered an amendment requiring the airlines to offer some decent food and a little legroom.)

So rather than pay $6 for emission permits on a round-trip flight to Europe – under a program that would promote efficiency and reduce fuel costs – U.S. taxpayers would just pay airline companies’ fines for failure to comply.

Hey, at least that would spread the costs more equally, right?  This way, even if you swim to London, or just stay home and watch the Olympics on TV, you’ll still have to pay.