Lithium batteries that power a host of electronic devices from laptops to pacemakers and mobile phones have become the focus of a fierce debate over how strictly the federal government should regulate their delivery by air.
On one side of the fight are the powerful chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), and airline pilots, who insist more protections are needed to prevent battery shipments from catching on fire.
However, some Congressional Republicans and business trade associations that represent a range of interests including medical device manufacturers and computer companies counter that more federal regulations are both costly and unnecessary.
At issue are proposed rules by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration that would require all lithium batteries and cells to be classified as hazardous materials.
That would mean the batteries would have to be packaged to protect them from short circuits that can cause fires. Furthermore, the packages would have to be labeled as hazardous materials and pilots and crew notified of the placement of the batteries on their aircraft. The batteries also could only be stowed in locations accessible to the crew or with fire-suppression systems unless they are transported in containers approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.
“Our job is to keep the public safe, so we think these rules are appropriate,” said Joe Delcambre, a spokesman for PHMSA, which is a part of the Department of Transportation.
He said the rules came from recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board in response to a fire in 2006 on a UPS Inc. plane that was forced to make an emergency landing in Philadelphia. The plane was carrying laptop lithium batteries that officials suspected were linked to the fire.
Delcambre said safety precautions are particularly important for potentially flammable products carried by aircraft.
“It is not like a motor tractor trailer that you can pull off to the side of the road and address it immediately,” he said.
The agency is expecting to finalize its rules by the end of the year after receiving comments from various parties last month.
However, opponents of the rules have launched a lobbying effort to persuade the agency to reconsider rules they say are not justified and will be financially onerous.
“This is a solution in search of a problem,” said Mark Leahey, president of the Medical Device Manufacturers Association, one of the groups that submitted comments to the transportation agency objecting to the rule.
Leahey said that because the proposed requirements could limit the amount of shipment space for batteries, it might be harder to make overnight emergency deliveries of medical devices such as pacemakers.
George Kerchner, the executive director of the Portable Rechargeable Battery Association, said federal officials have dramatically underestimated the additional price of the new regulations. His group puts the cost to the industry at $1.1 billion in the first year as opposed to a $9.3 million figure used by the transportation agency.
The impact of rules on lithium batteries, the vast majority of which are shipped by air from Asia, would be widespread, Kerchner said.
“It is a very ubiquitous technology,” he said.
The federal government has estimated that about 3.3 billion lithium cells and batteries were transported worldwide in 2008, an 83 percent increase from 2005.
Kerchner said his group approved of the generally accepted international standards for transporting batteries but not the more stringent proposed federal rules.
In an April 7 letter to the general counsel of the Department of Transportation, PRBA and other groups including the National Retail Federation, CTIA — The Wireless Association and the National Association of Manufacturers questioned whether the agency will take into account objections to its cost-benefit analysis of the regulations.
The letter warned that “PHMSA may not meet its legal obligations in the face of pressure from lawmakers and others for immediate action.”
With stopping the proposed regulations high on its agenda, PRBA last year paid the firm Wiley Rein $130,000 for its federal lobbying and has also tapped the public relations firm Qorvis Communications to reach out to reporters.
While PRBA’s lobbying tab is relatively small compared with other trade groups, its membership includes prominent companies with bigger lobbying budgets such as Apple, Dell, General Motors, Intel and Radio Shack.
The Airline Pilots Association, which spent $1.3 million on federal lobbying last year, has weighed in in favor of tougher safety standards, with officials testifying on Capitol Hill and submitting comments to the transportation agency.
Mark Rogers, a pilot and director of the Dangerous Goods Program for the Airline Pilots Association, told a House subcommittee last fall that there were at least six fires involving lithium batteries aboard aircraft or in packages prepared for aircraft from May to November.
In a phone interview, Rogers said the lithium batteries were not being treated any differently than other products that are considered hazardous.
“I hear the industry is concerned about costs,” he said. “It is the same cost being borne by the flammable paint industry and by the chemical industry.”
A spokeswoman for the pilots association declined to discuss the group’s lobbying strategy.
But it’s clear that much of the emphasis has shifted to the transportation agency after a flurry of activity last fall on Capitol Hill when the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, prodded by Oberstar, approved hazardous materials legislation that included new safeguards on transporting the lithium batteries.
At the time, Oberstar said the bill gave PHMSA “the tools and resources it needs to get back on track and successfully perform its safety mission.” One way it did that, the Congressman said, was to mandate implementation of the NTSB recommendations on lithium batteries. The legislation, however, has not yet been considered by the full House.
House Democratic staffers said Oberstar has made regulating the transportation of lithium batteries a priority and routinely seeks updates about how the Transportation Department is proceeding with the rulemaking.
A number of Republicans, including Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member John Mica (Fla.), have opposed the regulations.
In a March 10 letter to the administrator of the PHMSA, Mica said that the new standards could result in the loss of jobs in vital industries including airlines, health care technology and electronics.
“The financial impact will ultimately be borne by individuals who will suffer from subsequent job loss and by consumers who will pay for the extra burdens placed upon the transport of affected items,” Mica wrote.