If you were minding the news over the quiet Labor Day weekend, you may have noticed a bombshell of sorts: The Obama administration pulled the rug out from under EPA on proposed new regulations for tighter ozone standards. This caught nearly everyone by surprise, since Obama and the Democrats were believed to be on track to promulgate generally more restrictive environmental regulations.
But what does it have to do with aviation? Maybe nothing, maybe everything. As our ad nauseam reporting on leaded aviation gasoline has revealed, the EPA is in the midst of determining whether lead in aviation gasoline represents a health risk. It's doing the monitoring and research to make the case, using the Clean Air Act as the legal basis for regulatory action. The recently proposed ozone regulations followed a similar path, with EPA generating the health risk data to make its case.
In thwarting EPA, the administration said it wanted an update of the science before signing off, but everyone knows that the real reason is political. The president doesn't want to be vulnerable to claims of supporting "job killing" regulations. That's the new, all-purpose defense for industry when it doesn't want to spend money to clean up messes it may or may not have made. In any case, Obama's decision gives ozone emitters at least a two-year stay of execution. In the current economy, I can't argue with the decision.
Could the same thing happen when the airborne lead case finally reaches a head? It's intriguing to think so. There's little question that eliminating lead from aviation fuels will have a negative economic impact, although the size of it is unknown. If unleaded high-octane fuels cost more, this would conceivably reduce demand and activity, thus the "job killing" defense becomes plausible.
On the other hand, compared to the $90 billion claimed impact of the ozone standards, GA is chump change and may not have the political visibility to make the case, if the case comes up at all. Unfortunately, the timing may be all wrong. The inflection point on lead is at least two years away, if not five, and the damage being done to GA is happening right now, mostly in erosion of buying confidence. The lack of a clear replacement for leaded fuel or even whether one will be needed is exerting a small drag on GA sales. (I think other factors are much larger, but fuel worries just add to the malaise.)
Still, it's at least a minor comfort to imagine that the EPA pressure on lead emissions from avgas would just go away. Of such stuff are fantasies made on a rainy September afternoon.