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Stalling Innovation On Aviation Fuel

John Ryan

Nearly 40 years after US gasoline pumps started carrying unleaded fuel, small airplanes continue to burn leaded fuel. The aviation industry says it has tried for more than 20 years to develop a fuel that sends planes, but not lead, into the air. What's taking so long?

John Ryan has this follow up to our KUOW investigation, "Flying the Leaded Skies."


Once leaded gasoline was phased out, small planes running on the aviation fuel known as avgas became the leading source of lead in the nation's air.

Lead has long been known to have serious, often permanent, health impacts. Recent studies suggest that even the smaller amounts of lead being emitted today could be enough to reduce the IQs of children living near airports.

The aviation industry has been researching unleaded fuels for decades, but they've long failed to come up with anything with high enough octane to be used by all piston–engine planes.

Pilot and aviation industry observer Paul Bertorelli says the aviation industry basically cut a deal to avoid being forced into using a replacement fuel.

Bertorelli: "The government and EPA basically gave aviation a waiver, since aviation promised that it would search for a replacement. Well, that search has not been very effective or serious, because EPA didn't really put any pressure on the industry. So it was sort of status quo."

Bertorelli edits and other aviation publications. He says industry has grown more concerned in just the past couple years as rumblings of possible regulation got louder.

Bertorelli: "Yeah, people are worried. That's probably the number one issue."

The lobbying groups that represent aviation have been trying to hold off regulation on lead pollution. They argue that avgas makes up a tiny and declining fraction of the nation's fuel use, that it's too small to be an urgent concern. But the extent of their lobbying on lead is largely a mystery.

Molyneaux. "It's a very complex process at the federal level. We as a local airport sit back and watch that process play out."

Gary Molyneaux is the head planner at Boeing Field in Seattle. The airport is the state's largest source of lead emissions. He describes the FAA committee that's been discussing how a transition away from leaded fuel might occur.

Molyneaux: "It is a massive stakeholder process. Everything from Aircraft Owner Association, to the American Association of Airport Executives, to the International Airports Council — "

One sector that didn't get a seat at the committee table was the public. Regulators have been meeting with industry behind closed doors. Here's Paul Bertorell:

Bertorelli: "It's hard to get the details, because the so–called ARC committee, which is the Aviation Rulemaking Committee, is closed to the public and the press. So we only have the barest glimpses of what exactly they're doing and what they're going to come up with."

The FAA did invite an environmental group to participate, but they said no.

Keever: "We were initially happy to receive the invitation. However, once we discovered the process would not be open to the public, we declined."

Marcie Keever is with Friends of the Earth.

Keever: "We wanted to be able to share the information with our members, with members of the public. This is a very, very important issue for public health with regard to lead emissions."

Developing a new airplane fuel is no small task. The fuel has to meet the demanding specifications of airplane engineering. And the FAA has to be convinced it's safe.

The aviation industry has put effort into researching new fuels at the same time it's resisted being regulated. Around 200 substitute fuels have been tested over the years, but none did the trick.

Ziulkowski: "The things that they have come up with are either too hideously expensive or they're too toxic. They're more toxic than lead, so what's the point in doing that?"

Jon Ziulkowski works for Swift Enterprises in Indiana. His company is one of two awaiting FAA approval for an unleaded aviation fuel.

He says Swift Fuel would not only be lead–free, it could be made from climate–friendly sources like pulp mill waste and surplus crops. Ziulkowski predicts Swift Fuel will hit the market by the end of the year.

Ziulkowski: "We as an industry, Swift included, are working as hard as we can to bring a safe and effective solution to market. The one thing we don't want to do is be regulated into a corner. We want to preempt regulation."

Environmentalists, as you might guess, have a different view.

Friends of the Earth sued the EPA this month for failing to act on the group's six–year–old petition to regulate leaded aviation fuel.

The EPA has started monitoring lead levels at airports to decide whether airport emissions endanger public health. But the agency has no timeline for completing its monitoring studies or issuing any new regulations.

Tight new federal health standards for lead pollution from all sources will come into effect five years from now. That might be the soonest that aviation will have to go unleaded.

I'm John Ryan, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2012, KUOW

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