Industry Offers Avgas Alternatives, FAA Targets 2018 Use
July 17, 2014
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  • The Federal Aviation Administration announced July 10 it has received proposals for alternatives to leaded fuels for piston-fired engines. FAA officials have said their goal is to have an unleaded aviation fuel option available by 2018.

    “We’re committed to getting harmful lead out of general aviation fuel. This work will benefit the environment and provide a safe and available fuel for our general aviation community,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a formal statement.

    Aviation gasoline, commonly referred to as avgas, is the only commonly used fuel in the country that still has lead added to it. The most widely distributed avgas is a 100-octane fuel known as 100 low-lead. The toxic element is added to avgas to achieve a higher octane level in the fuel, which improves engine performance, and lubricate parts in highly stressed piston aircraft engines.

    Federal regulations ended the addition of lead in vehicle fuels nearly 40 years ago. Jet fuels do not contain lead.

    According to the FAA, there are approximately 167,000 general aviation aircraft in the United States that use leaded fuel.

    There are more than 10,000 piston-engine aircraft registered in Alaska, meaning the state has nearly 16 times the aircraft per capita as the national average, the state Transportation Department reports.

    The FAA requested the 10 alternative fuel proposals it received in June 2013 as part of the agency’s Piston Aviation Fuels Initiative, or PAFI, aimed at helping the general aviation industry make a smooth transition to unleaded gasoline.

    The proposals came from fuel producers Afton Chemical Co., Avgas LLC, Swift Fuels and a group including BP, Total USA and Hjelmco.

    The fuel initiative will play a “key role” in deployment of unleaded fuel across the nation’s existing general aviation fleet, an FAA release states. Congress appropriated $6 million in the current budget to fund the PAFI tests at the FAA Technical Center in New Jersey.

    Testing will analyze how common engines in the existing fleet respond to the fuels, associated costs, the possibility of their production and distribution and potential environmental impacts.

    Jane Dale, the government affairs coordinator for the Alaska Air Carriers Association, said more money needs to be put towards fuel research if significant steps to eliminate leaded avgas are going to be taken.

    FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a release that the agency would collaborate with industry partners and the Environmental Protection Agency to find a viable solution to leaded avgas.

    Restricting avgas consumption would only work in Alaska if a substitute fuel performs like its leaded predecessor, Dale said. If substitute fuels do not have the same characteristics of avgas, they would have to be implemented over decades, up to 30 years, she said, to allow for the industry to transition its fleet.

    Nearly 96 percent of the commercial aircraft fleet in Alaska is piston-engine aircraft that burn leaded fuel, Dale said, meaning new fuel requirements would have an immediate and lasting impact on the state’s economy.

    According to the federal bureau of transportation statistics, avgas accounts for 0.15 percent of the fuel consumed nationwide, but that figure jumps to 3.38 percent in Alaska.

    “The federal government should commit to a substantial research and development program for aviation fuel and produce a viable fuel alternative prior to any regulatory changes,” Dale said.

    The EPA estimates about 14.6 billion gallons of avgas consumed between 1970 and 2007 emitted approximately 34,000 tons of airborne lead. Avgas is the single largest contributor to airborne lead particulates in the country, according to the agency.

    The aviation industry has come under fire from environmental groups for purported impacts of using leaded fuels in populated areas.

    Friends of the Earth has led a petition since 2006 to the EPA calling for tighter regulations regarding lead emissions from agvas. In April of this year Friends of the Earth filed a motion requesting the EPA reconsider a 2012 denial of its petition.

    The motion claims the EPA has all of the information it needs to make a finding that avgas lead emissions “may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.”

    EPA has said it intends to make a final endangerment determination in mid-to late 2015, after studies of the issue are complete.

    Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.