AirVenture 2010: Avgas — Top 'Er Off with 100 Gallons of Muddled Message
In a moment of absolute delusional optimism, when I left for Oshkosh last week, I secretly thought that AirVenture would, at long last, produce the briefest, shining glimpses of clarity about a replacement for 100LL. My wild fantasy was that a path out of the mire would at least become visible, if not negotiable.
Sadly, just the opposite has happened thus far, leaving me to wonder if anyone in our government is even remotely capable of getting anything never mind everything into the same sock. When I got back to our press trailer Tuesday evening after an industry fuels briefing, waiting in my inbox was a press release from AOPA quoting EPA as saying essentially that it hasn't set a timeline for eliminating 100LL and, anyway, it doesn't have the authority to do that.
Huh? In other words, is the EPA saying, hey, just kiddin'…we can't do anything about that nasty old lead in your fuel? Here's the exact quote from Margo Tsirigotis Oge, director of EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality: "EPA has not established or proposed any date by which lead emissions from aircraft operating on leaded avgas would need to be reduced. In fact EPA does not have authority to control aviation fuels." You can judge for yourself what this statement means. Don't get your pants snagged on parsing "control aviation fuels." EPA has full statutory control over the components that go into avgas, not the gas itself. I'll let you apply your own metric about how disingenuous that statement really is.
So along comes FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt on Wednesday with this quote: "…We've had some pretty good discussions with the EPA. They've been cooperative and helpful. The EPA of course has the ability and they have the statutory authority, in fact, to say there will be no more lead in fuel..." Just in case you think we're making this up, here's the link to the video. I think Babbitt's statement is clear, unambiguous and correct. I don't think the question that prompted the quote was a blindside. I do think his support staff failed him in not informing him about what EPA said on Tuesday because I'm sure he would like to have known that what he was saying was in direct conflict with what EPA said the day before. We asked the FAA's PR team with a follow-up with Babbitt and they said they'd take it under advisement. But I'm not sure he could make his view any clearer than he did. Unless he says the flight safety card trumps all and that the EPA can be made to agree that continuing use of lead--like forever--is a worthy tradeoff between environmental threat and air safety. I don't hear anyone saying that. Yet.
To describe this as a muddled message is to give a bad name to the very word muddled. But the larger consideration is even worse. AOPA's headline on the press release said this: "EPA Tells GA Avgas Coalition That the Agency Is Committed to Working with Industry, Sets No Deadline for Unleaded Avgas." This notion was also advanced at the fuel briefing on Tuesday and it is exactly the wrong message to be sending now.
I know why it is being sent. It's a tamp down—an attempt to keep owners from panicking about fuel availability. But the way the message is likely to be interpreted is…don't worry, be happy. We've got another 20-year waiver. We've got plenty of time to solve this problem. AOPA shouldn't be behind this message, although it's right to try to seek just the right tone between complacency and panic. I recognize that this is not easy, but having the EPA essentially imply that well, there really is no deadline is just setting up the industry for a bigger fall two or three years from now. We've got to stop doing this and step up meeting this challenge.
As the Clean 100-Octane Coalition's Jon Sisk told me Wednesday, if we're going to attract innovators and entrepreneurs to risk capital to build the new fuels, we can't do that by (a) having government agencies express diametrically opposed policy statements and (b) having our own industry groups sign on to this in order to minimize the problem for the short term. If you want a bigger mess, just keep putting this off.
Can't we do any better than this? My view is that we as users, owners and operators ought to challenge the FAA and EPA to give clearer, more consistent policy statements. I didn't see that this week.