Devine, whose organization represents whistle-blowers, said the bill sailed through Congress once some senators who previously worked in secret to block a vote dropped their opposition.
The new airlines law was a response to an EU program that places a cap on carbon dioxide emissions from industrial polluters. Early this year, the law was expanded to include all airlines flying into and out of Europe.
U.S. airlines complained that they would be charged even for the emissions discharged over the United States or the Atlantic on their way to European destinations. The U.S. industry says it would cost it some $3.1 billion between 2012 and 2020. Those payments were to start in April, but the EU postponed that earlier this month.
"Although European leaders have temporarily pulled back their tax proposal, the law signed by the president today will help ensure the EU scheme will not resurface next year like a phoenix rising from the ashes," said Rep. John Mica of Florida, the Republican chairman of the House Transportation Committee,
The airlines emissions legislation requires the transportation secretary to prohibit U.S. airlines from paying into the EU emissions program if that prohibition is deemed in the public interest. It also urges the administration to engage in international talks to seek a global approach to aircraft emissions.
"The Obama administration should seek binding regulations and limits on such pollution when it meets with international partners to establish these rules at the International Civil Aviation Organization," said Sarah Saylor of the environmental group Earthjustice.
Obama also signed legislation that permits construction of a natural gas pipeline within certain areas of the Gateway National Recreation Area in New York City.
He also signed into law legislation that sets a cost-of-living adjustment for veterans who receive disability compensation. The increase is estimated to amount to about 1.9 percent.
Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.