Avgas (aviation gasoline), the last type of leaded fuel available on the U.S. market, has recently drawn the scrutiny of EPA. Although it makes up only a tenth of 1 percent of the liquid fuel sold in the U.S., it is the life blood of smaller piston-engine aircrafts. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, EPA used its authority under the Clean Air Act to push for the removal of lead from automobile gasoline and today this move is considered one of the greatest environmental achievements of all time. However, Avgas and racing fuel were spared EPA regulation mainly because of their relative small impact and limited use. Racing fuel switched to a customized blend of high-octane gasoline in 2008 and it appears that EPA has now taken notice of Avgas.

Later this year, air quality monitors will be installed at 15 airports to gather data on lead pollution and to aid EPA in making a determination on whether Avgas is exposing people to dangerous amounts of lead. EPA’s move comes as a result of a lawsuit from the environmental group Friends of the Earth. Scientific studies have shown that aircraft emissions contributed to lead in children’s blood, particularly those living close to airports.

The Federal Aviation Administration has assembled the Unleaded Avgas Transition Aviation Rulemaking Committee to plan for the potential transition away from Avgas, but the same problem that has kept Avgas around in the first place has yet to be solved. The problem being that no suitable replacement exists. Lead helps protect engines, a unique quality not easily replicated. Engines that burn Avgas can’t handle the ethanol added to regular gasoline and premium gasoline is less powerful than the 100 octane Avgas. The industry has been testing alternatives for quite some time, but none have worked. However, the industry has not been under any pressure thus far to achieve results.

Any Avgas ban would most directly affect aircraft operated in Alaska, which uses roughly one-third of the Avgas consumed in the U.S., and in other remote areas that use piston-engine planes to deliver food, medicine, and other supplies to remote towns. An Avgas ban would essentially regulate these aircraft out of existence. To address this, the National Business Aviation Association and others have formed acoalition of stakeholders that is seeking an approach that focuses on concerns about safety, cost, availability and ease of Avgas production.

If you consider that Avgas is only a small piece of the overall emissions pie, it is clear from this move to begin a monitoring program as well as other recent moves by EPA that air pollution is a top priority. It is likely we will see more emissions regulation in the near future. As this issue progresses, please check back to this blog for future posts.