Friends of the Earth: The Upside
When I was speaking to Marcie Keever at Friends of the Earth for this podcast last week, she laughed when I informed her that many in the aviation community view FOE as a bunch of tree-hugging, environmental whackos. "I've been called a lot worse," she said, and I wouldn't argue the point. Groups like FOE, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and others take a beating for what are often viewed as radical stands on public policy.
Whether they deserve it or not is a debate for another time and place, but FOE has placed itself in the fray with aviation interests because of its petition to the EPA asking for a finding of endangerment on the use of tetraethyl lead as an octane enhancer in avgas. Technically, they're approaching it not from the TEL input side, but from the emissions standards side, but the effect is the same.
Right or wrong, Friends is viewed as the leading heavy in the industry's struggle to maintain a sustainable fuel supply. But the reality is that FOE's petition is only one prong of a two-pronged attack on lead, the other being the EPA's own emerging tighter standards on airborne lead emissions. These have nothing to do with the FOE petition which may or may not lead to a lawsuit for force EPA's hand. Although FOE can't say at this point if it will sue, my guess is that it will.
Is that a good thing? I have diverging views on this. Although I disagree with the contention that avgas is a significant environmental threat I am at the same time supportive of the work that groups like FOE do. Without activist groups like this, companies would still be dumping poisonous compounds into rivers, fouling the air with dangerous chemicals and burying who knows what to leach into and destroy ground water tables. For all the fear mongering it's subject too, EPA is in the end high atop of pyramid of foot-dragging, politically sensitive agencies.
As we reported, EPA's Glenn Passavant at AOPA Summit earlier this month so muddied the waters on the lead regulation issue that it has become all but impossible to form a rational opinion on this subject. Maybe they will. Maybe they won't. No one seems to have the first clue which way this is going to go, leaving owners and the developers of replacement fuels to twist in light and variable winds. For as confused at EPA appears to be about this, general aviation industry's response has been consistently pathetic. Twenty five years into the problem, we've collectively wrung our hands and achieved nothing.
It is not possible to find anything approaching clarity, but I give FOE credit for at least being an honest, forthright player in this drama, which is more than can be said of others. While FOE has a clear picture of the regulatory issues, it's less tuned in to some of the unleaded fuel research underway, such as the details of Swift's work, GAMI's research or the ultra low-lead initiative. Even if it were, I'm not sure that this would—or should—influence its stance on leaded fuel emissions.
Why? Because the more the various parties co-opt each other with deals and agreements, the longer the period of uncertainty over future fuels will go on and the worse it will be for owners trying to decide what they're going to do. Far better, I think, to reach a definitive finding, put the stake in TEL with a definite deadline or, alternately, decide that the juice isn't worth the squeezing and leave the stuff alone, allowing market forces to do their work. If the latter, lead emissions are a self-correcting problem, given the decline of avgas volume and the potential rise of heavy fuel engines.
Not that I am encouraged by this. In fact, the more I cover this issue and the more people I talk to about it, the more discouraged I become. The single best proposal out there is Lycoming's idea to decide on a new fuel within two years, then implement it in the market over the next 10 years. I'm just not seeing a lot of meaningful progress toward that goal. In that context, the benefit of FOE's petition and possible lawsuit is to force the issue one way or another and end this uncertainty. That's not a bad thing.