Airports: Meet the Environment

SAN ANTONIO — Jessica Steinhilber, senior director of environmental affairs for Airports Council International-North America, points out that when she was hired four years ago she was the first staffer dedicated full time to the issue. “It’s a reflection of the industry, saying that environmental is so important that we want someone dedicated full time to working on it,” she says. During ACI-NA’s recent Environmental Conference held here in April, she sat with AIRPORT BUSINESS to discuss the major issues for airports related to the environment, and to talk about the growing role it is playing in the industry’s day to day life. Following are edited excerpts of that interview ...

AIRPORT BUSINESS: When you hear the words airport and environmental, characterize to me what that means today.

Steinhilber: The issue that I have is that every airport is so different, that the issues they’re dealing with on an environmental basis are so varied — based on the local concerns; the local environment. It’s why our committee is so broad on what they cover, because there are so many varying issues. Some airports, noise is the main issue; other airports, it’s air quality; water quality at another.
There’s obviously compliance, a basic level of what airports have to do environmentally. But beyond that, it’s really responding to what local concerns are.

AB: Should we also characterize it as a growing issue?

Steinhilber: The way I look at it is, airports have been fairly proactive on environmental issues for a while. Airports generally view themselves as an extension of the community; a government agency; public servants who are there to serve the community.

So, it’s responding to the community. Over the last few years environmental issues have come back to the forefront of issues of concern; airports have stepped up and are doing more pro-actively. But they’ve been doing this stuff for a while.

The other piece of it is, getting more information about what they’re doing. I think airports have been doing great stuff, they just haven’t been communicating it that well.

My position was created when I started in it. Even within ACI, it was shared with other issues. It’s a reflection of the industry, saying that environmental is so important that we want someone dedicated full time to working on it.

AB: What’s going on with CO2 regulation in D.C. that would affect airports?

Steinhilber: EPA recently finalized a mandatory reporting rule. There is a 25,000 metric ton threshold; if you have 25,000 metric tons or more, then you have to participate in this annual reporting. We think there’s somewhere in the range of ten to 20 airports that might meet that threshold, but it’s difficult for us to know. We’re saying, airports you need to look and see exactly what sources you have at your airport and whether or not you meet the threshold.

Many of the larger airports are going to have to do some kind of inventory anyway to figure out whether or not they meet the threshold.

AB: Then there’s the issue of EPA’s new deicing guidlines.

Steinhilber: In August, EPA proposed regulations to address the runoff from deicing; the comments on that were due February 26.

Our position is basically that, as proposed, EPA has underestimated what the cost is going to be to industry, and they haven’t fully considered what the operational and safety impacts of what they’ve proposed will be. And, we don’t think the rule has the commensurate environmental benefits that should be seen with the amount of cost that the rule will impose.

AB: Did they in fact do a cost/benefit analysis?

Steinhilber: Not a cost/benefit analysis; but they did look at the cost [by way of technical criteria]. They concluded that it’s going to cost the industry about $91 million a year, and that’s over 20 years and includes both the capital and O&M costs of what they’re proposing. We think that that is significantly underestimating the actual cost.

There are things that they either calculated wrong or just plain didn’t consider. They don’t consider operational costs at all, which is pretty problematic. Some of what they’re proposing would have some pretty big impacts at the New York and Boston airports. If you’re impacting operations there, it’s going to have a cost.

AB: Airports in Salt Lake City and Pittsburgh are currently investing in glycol recovery systems. Does this impact their efforts?

Steinhilber: That’s one of our comments, that airports across the country already have extensive infrastructure in place to deal with this runoff. The issue is, the way it’s been proposed EPA is basically saying, you have to put in deicing pads at these airports that use large amounts of deicing fluid. Well, you can’t just throw a pad down anywhere; it’s going to have significant operational impacts.

It works in Pittsburgh; it works in Salt Lake City because they have the space and because of the way their airfields are configured. It works there, and the industry is supportive of it, where it works. The rule needs to be flexible enough to allow airports to do what works for them, working with the airlines.

AB: A year ago, cap and trade was a hot legislative topic in Washington. Is it still a concern?

Steinhilber: It’s something that we’re following. It’s the same kind of thing as with the threshold – some airports could be included. All of that is so vague right now.

It doesn’t seem like there’s anything actually targeting airports.

AB: Detroit is talking windmills; San Francisco is putting solar panels on top of a parking garage. How much is alternative energy impacting airports?

Steinhilber: We are hearing more and more from airports that are exploring renewable energy — windmills; solar; geothermal. FAA is now developing some guidance, specific to solar, because they’re getting so many inquiries about it. We’re talking about it this week with our legal committee in a joint session, focused on a land use perspective.

AB: Anything in particular going on right now with NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act)?

Steinhilber: One thing we’re focusing on is integration of the planning process with the NEPA process. We’re having a conference this fall, bringing together planners and NEPA professionals and integrating within the event the two issues and how we can better integrate the two processes.

It’s something that our committee has been looking at.

AB: What would you say about NextGen and its potential to impact airports? For example, will Part 150 need to be rewritten? Will noise contour changes and possible increased capacity be a negative to airports?

Steinhilber: This is something we’ve been paying attention to regarding the potential operational and procedural changes associated with NextGen, and what the noise, air quality, and fuel burn impacts can be. There can be benefits, but at the same time there could also be some negative impact — like RNAV concentrating flights.

It’s definitely a concern.

AB: A benefit we hear about is increased capacity. Yet, more aircraft mean more fuel, more emissions, etc.

Steinhilber: Within NextGen, and I participate on an environmental working group, we’ve been flagging that pretty consistently. I think it’s generally recognized that environment stands to be a significant constraint to implementing NextGen, exactly as you describe it. So, we have to think about what we have to do to mitigate those impacts.

AB: So, will we have to do an environmental assessment on the entire system to determine if we can implement NextGen?

Steinhilber: (laughs)