San Carlos Airport fuel facility makes county an unlikely posterchild for air quality 

click to enlarge San Carlos Airport in San Mateo County, Calif.
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors reopened a fuel contract for San Carlos Airport, making the small airport a leader in an environmental issue.

San Mateo County supervisors opened Pandora's box when they decided to refresh the bidding process for a fuel facility and office suite outside the San Carlos Airport — a move made after critics decried its previous lease agreement with Mountain West Aviation. Because Mountain West had offered to be both a fuel vender and an office renter, public works officials lumped those two leases together without opening the fuel facility contract to the public. Supervisors cried foul.

But the real sticking point was San Carlos Airport's reliance on leaded fuel, which causes air pollution and leads to public health risks, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. San Carlos Airport currently exceeds federal standards for lead emissions, and environmentalists see the new contract as an opportunity to reverse course.

The Board of Supervisors agreed, and opted last week to draft a new request for proposals to fill the airport's fuel contract, with a stipulation that the new vendor provide an unleaded fuel option. While that pleased the environmentalists who showed up to Tuesday's board meeting, it worried industry managers and public works employees, who foresaw a giant headache.

The airport will have to apply its new standards across the board if it wants to abide by Federal Aviation Administration standards for fair business practices, said public works director James Porter. That could mean modifying — or jeopardizing — the agreement it now has with fuel supplier Rabbit Aviation. If the airport flouts those standards, it could lose out on vital FAA grants, which keep its operation afloat.

Porter also worried that pilots wouldn't cotton to the new system. When his department surveyed 400 of them, only 15 percent of respondents said they had planes equipped to use the unleaded version. Extrapolating from that, Porter said, the airport could probably sell about 1,500 gallons of unleaded fuel per year — a pittance compared to the 427,000 gallons of aviation gas that it sells today.

He noted in an interview later that Mountain West offered unleaded options at Lake Tahoe Airport, but discontinued them due to lack of demand. Few airports in the country currently offer unleaded fuel — much less require it — so San Mateo County's new contract stipulation would put it way ahead of the curve. Perhaps too far ahead, Porter suggests.

"It is staff's opinion based on the survey of the pilots that there simply isn't a market right now for unleaded fuel for two members," he told the Board of Supervisors. "We think the prudent route to go is that we hold off on requiring unleaded fuel until there is a certifiable unleaded fuel by the FAA."

But Porter couldn't persuade citizens and county officials to prioritize market efficiency over environmental concerns. Nor could he dismiss commentary from pilots like Phil Sih, who said that one of his three planes could use unleaded fuel immediately. In a surprising twist, Rabbit Aviation CEO Dan DeMeo said he would gladly offer the unleaded option if the company's contract is renewed. It seemed everyone had been seduced by the idea of being torchbearers for air quality. The rest of the nation would catch up soon, they assured.

In fact, the FAA announced in June that it would develop its own unleaded fuel by 2018, though many call that a conservative projection. Supervisor Carole Groom said she thinks the new eco-friendly standard will come much sooner.

"Isn't it best to prepare for it now?" she asked Porter, who kept cool. In the end, though, he conceded.

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