The aviation industry is slowly headed toward development of an unleaded replacement fuel for avgas-burning piston-powered aircraft, and a recent move by the FAA is an encouraging sign that progress will continue. The FAA recently agreed to open a new Fuels Program Office, according to NATA, that will provide “technical expertise and strategic direction in the planning, management and coordination of activities related to aviation fuels.”
NATA and several other aviation associations (AOPA, EAA, GAMA and NBAA) sent a letter on August 1 to FAA acting administrator Michael Huerta, asking for the FAA’s help in funding and managing efforts to find a suitable replacement for 100LL (100-octane) avgas. 100LL relies on the additive tetraethyl lead to prevent detonation in high-compression piston engines that power high-performance aircraft, and pressure from environmental groups and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has intensified scrutiny of leaded avgas.
An aviation rulemaking committee has explored the avgas issue and made recommendations to the FAA. According to the association letter to the FAA, “We are at a critical phase between consideration of the Unleaded Avgas Transition Aviation Rulemaking Committee (UAT ARC) recommendations and implementation of a fiscally responsible FAA unleaded avgas program that will achieve this objective.” The letter asked Huerta to fund the FAA’s avgas program with $5.5 million in the Fiscal Year 2014 budget, “not only for the economic sustainability of general aviation in the U.S., but also for its safety.”
The FAA avgas program will help in two key ways. One is to demonstrate that the FAA and industry are working together on a clear path to an unleaded fuel replacement. Without that clarity, owners, operators and investors won’t be motivated to maintain their aircraft and invest in new avionics and other aviation technologies. “An avgas program is also needed to support the FAA’s statutory role in cooperation with the EPA to implement any lead emissions standards for aircraft it deems necessary under the Clean Air Act,” according to the letter.
The UAT ARC report was submitted to the FAA earlier this year and recommended five key elements covering testing and certification of an unleaded avgas that would power the existing piston-engine fleet. The report noted that there is currently no drop-in replacement for 100LL avgas (although lower-power engines can operate on automotive unleaded gas in some aircraft, under a supplemental type certificate).
According to the associations’ letter, “The FAA’s direct involvement and participation in this process is critical to ensuring a fleet-wide transition to an unleaded avgas that will maintain consumer confidence and ensure the least impact on the existing fleet. The establishment of the new Fuels Program Office will ensure an efficient use of both government and industry resources and will provide a more comprehensive pathway and timeline to an unleaded fuel.”
Debate Continues in California
Meanwhile, in California, the battle between the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) and fuel sellers and distributors continues. Last year, CEH, a San Francisco-based environmental group, filed notices of violation (NOVs) against California-based avgas sellers, distributors and manufacturers. California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act requires companies that use substances known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm to warn people who might be exposed to these substances. The act, also known as Proposition 65, allows anyone to file a citizen’s enforcement action on behalf of Californians 60 days after serving the notices, unless the state attorney general brings suit first. CEH is seeking to block the sale of leaded avgas in California and wants to impose financial penalties on the companies named in the NOVs because the companies didn’t warn people about the potential exposure to leaded avgas. And if CEH is successful, it will earn revenues because the law allows such organizations to receive a portion of any financial penalties imposed on the violators.
Fuel companies and FBOs have formed the CA Avgas Coalition to fight the prospect of financial penalties because of CEH’s actions. Little progress has been made, and CEH and the coalition are still negotiating. “Typically, the goal with our litigation is not to have a trial but to negotiate a consent judgment, with both sides coming to an agreement that accomplishes the goals, and everybody can live with it,” said Caroline Cox, research director at CEH. “That process can be time-consuming.” She anticipates that any judgment will include reducing the exposure to lead and warning people about the exposure. If the exposure amount can be reduced below the state’s safe harbor level, then no warning about the substance is necessary, she explained.
Some California FBOs have raised the price of avgas to cover the cost of defending against the CEH’s actions. David Mills, general manager of Business Jet Center at Oakland International Airport, said, “We are part of the Avgas Coalition. It was a strategic and financial decision to join: there’s strength in numbers and it’s better to share defense costs than go it alone. We have increased the price of avgas by $0.25 per gallon to cover a small percentage of the cost of litigation defense.”