Are We Gonna Get A 100LL Replacement Or Not?
I have my own little axe to grind here and so let the sparks fly. Last month, as part of routine newsgathering duties, I tried to compile a how-goes-it on the FAA’s Piston Aviation Fuels Initiative, or PAFI. This yielded nothing but a waste of time and mounting frustration for me because everyone I spoke to said some version of, "I can’t talk about it.” Or all I can say is something off the record.
Now comes the FAA to announce that the PAFI process—at least the testing—has been suspended because the differences between the two candidate fuels from Swift and Shell and the current 100LL spec are too great. Pray tell what does this mean? And why did it take us four years to learn this? And what happens next? And the big one: Does this spook the market for people about to spend most of a million bucks for an airplane that requires 100LL? Or even a used Bonanza? Does anyone even care anymore? (You can tell us by answering today’s Question of the Week.)
The PAFI process has been impressively successful at one thing: keeping the general flying public utterly in the dark. It was not only designed to be this way, as I understand it, it‘s required to be because of archaic federal rules that kick in at the nexus between government oversight and private industry development efforts. I can see the point, since companies are sensitive about tipping their investment hands to competitors. On the other hand, the level of opaqueness surrounding PAFI is counterproductive, frustrating and something we as citizens shouldn’t accept as good government. Nice ideal, huh? Good luck changing it.
So four years into PAFI—more than two of testing—it looks like we have learned only that the two candidate fuels are too different from 100LL and if I’m reading between the lines correctly, that means neither is the drop-in replacement we had hoped for. Does that then mean that these will be tweaked before more testing? After I reported that the Shell fuel was an effective aircraft paint stripper, I thought that the tweaking had already occurred. And if it had not occurred, why was further testing being done on a fuel no right-thinking pilot would want near his airplane? Many such questions hover over the process with, thus far, no answers that would satisfy even the mildly curious.
With details lacking on the specs shortfall, I can only guess what the issues are. I don‘t think octane is one of them, however. Swift’s entry never lacked for that and at least one source familiar with the testing told me that neither did Shell’s. Swift may have had some problems with cold weather starting and there may be compatibility issues with fuel distribution equipment and the ever-worrisome O-rings and seals. There could be other problems no one foresaw or that simply couldn’t be addressed.
Waiting in the wings are other candidates. General Aviation Modifications Inc.’s G100 may be the most prominent, but Phillips has a project going in conjunction with Afton Chemical, the Europe-based Total and BP reportedly have formulations under consideration but of unknown currency. There may be others. Presumably, or so it said, the PAFI edifice will now examine these as Swift and Shell modify their formulations to fix the shortcomings we aren’t being told about.
Recall that the last official update on PAFI progress was at AirVenture, where the message was that things were going swimmingly. A year later, not so much and the completion schedule has now slipped a full year to December 2019, some 18 months distant.
It’s only logical to again ask why we’re doing this in the first place and you may have forgotten it’s because the EPA was considering a finding of endangerment against tetraethyl lead. That’s still underway at EPA, although an email I sent asking of its status went unanswered. Friends of the Earth, you may recall, has a pending suit that seeks to force the EPA’s hand on the endangerment finding and the group told me the suit is still active, but with no new filings or court action planned.
There’s an underlying assumption here that the EPA will, sooner or later, act on the lead issue and after 40 years of trying, the aviation industry needs a ready unleaded solution. Given the current administration’s aggressive attitude toward deregulation, I’m not so sure it wouldn’t slow leak the endangerment finding for the foreseeable future. If that transpired, does that reduce the urgency for a replacement? The FAA and the engine industry seem to have decided on an unleaded future, but the timeline is rubbery.
The schedule may very well hinge on what producers of 100LL still in the game wish to do. There’s still money to be made in producing leaded avgas, although the volumes have been in decline. My best guess is that it’s a $200 to $300 million a year profit stream for the refiners blending avgas. For the effort of handling the lead—or getting rid of it and blending an unleaded product—that’s still a business worth being in.
Or so it would seem. On the other hand, nothing in the avgas business has ever been what it seems.