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Will the Pump Go Dry

What's next after 100 low-lead?

For most of us who fly, the routine is the same. Fuel up the airplane with 100 low-lead (100LL) or auto fuel, preflight, and go. What happens if the first step is taken out of the equation? What if the fuel that has powered our aircraft so long is suddenly no longer available? That possibility could become reality in the next decade.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken its first step toward eliminating the largest remaining airborne source of lead in the nation—100LL. It is developing a notice of proposed rulemaking designed to reduce and ultimately eliminate lead in aviation fuel. The EPA realizes that any change, if made too quickly, could cripple the general aviation (GA) fleet and compromise safety. However, the EPA must also respond to petitions and court cases brought by environmental interest groups, and it is clearly looking toward the eventual goal of removing all lead from aviation fuel.

While the EPA is driving the change, 100LL is also threatened for other reasons. It is a specialty fuel; refiners question whether they can justify the added expense of developing, certificating, producing, and distributing a fuel that is used in relatively small quantities—much less than Jet A, and certainly a fraction of auto fuel. For refiners and fuel farm operators, it’s much more cost-efficient to concentrate on big users, such as automobiles, trucks, trains, and turbine aircraft. And, there is currently only one manufacturer of tetra-ethyl lead; should that manufacturer discontinue production, 100LL is gone.

EAA’s government advocacy team is vigilant about the future availability of 100LL and is joining with other GA groups to outline the concerns of the aviation community and provide suggestions to make any transition a more palatable one.

EAA is studying the other developments in aviation fuels to see if any of them hold promise. You probably have heard of some of them, such as GAMI, Swift and other biofuels, and others. Additional efforts to develop high-octane unleaded fuels are also underway by petroleum producers with less fanfare.

For the past 20 years, EAA has been active in developing specifications for several new aviation fuels, including 82-, 87-, 91-, and 94-octane unleaded grades. While these may be viable fuels for lower-compression engines, they do not solve the ultimate dilemma of replacing the octane-enhancing qualities of 100LL. What is possible in a laboratory or test flight may not work in the mass marketplace.

EAA is working with AOPA, GAMA, NBAA, NATA, and the FAA’s committees on future fuels —along with representatives of the petroleum industry—to protect the best interests of aircraft owners, builders, and pilots during any transition. Regardless of what fuel eventually takes the place of 100LL, some segment of the GA fleet will be affected. For now we don’t know the entire answer.

EAA will keep you updated on the issues as well as innovations. Keeping safe, affordable fuels widely available to all pilots in order to preserve the freedom of flight is a major focus of EAA’s advocacy team.

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