It’s Time to Align US Lithium Battery Air Transport Rules with International Standards

George Kerchner, Executive Director
PRBA – The Rechargeable Battery Association

For years, PRBA–The Rechargeable Battery Association, along with other business and transportation groups, has urged the US Department of Transportation (DOT) to update its regulations applicable to air shipments of lithium batteries by harmonizing its regulations with the more stringent international requirements.  The regulatory effort in Washington has proved long and arduous. PHMSA first proposed new safety regulations on the air shipment of lithium batteries in January 2010 and sent a final rule to OMB that October. PHMSA’s proposal proved controversial and was followed by new and improved proposed rules published in April 2012 and January 2013.

Hopefully, the end is near. In early February, DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), with an assist from the Federal Aviation Administration, submitted a revised final rule on the safe transport of lithium batteries to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

PRBA is pleased the final rule appears to be moving forward. However, the latest PHMSA rulemaking must be aligned with the more robust safety requirements contained in the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) Technical Instructions for the Safe Transport of Dangerous Goods by Air, which took effect on Jan. 1, 2013.

Last year, PHMSA incorporated the ICAO Technical Instructions into federal regulations but also allowed shippers to comply by meeting either the ICAO or U.S. hazardous materials regulations. This dual regulatory system is not just unwieldy and unworkable but also unnecessarily complicates the compliance and enforcement efforts absolutely essential to the safe air shipment of lithium batteries.

If PHMSA’s final rule now sitting at OMB harmonizes with the ICAO Technical Instructions, then OMB should act in a timely manner to finalize these air transport regulations. In a January 10, 2014 letter to the director of OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), an industry coalition, including PRBA, other trade associations, battery manufacturers and transportation companies, noted that PHMSA’s lithium battery rulemaking was initiated more than four years ago “It is now time for this proceeding to be completed,” the letter emphasized.

The letter reiterated the importance of aligning US and ICAO rules. “We strongly believe that this would enhance safety by avoiding the burdens of complying with multiple and inconsistent safety requirements,” the letter emphasized.

PHMA’s submission of a new final rule for OMB review should not provoke endless delays. A prompt review will benefit US and global regulators as well as industry by ensuring the lithium batteries are shipped safely and responsibly.

It remains unclear how long it will take OMB to complete its review of the lithium battery final rule, which would authorize PHMSA to publish it in the Federal Register.  An optimistic schedule foresees a final rule published by May 2014. However, in light of the four-plus years it has taken PHMSA to get to this point, a more likely schedule is a final rule published in the Federal Register later this summer with an effective date of January 1, 2015.  Such an effective date would be rather ironic in that it is the same day the ICAO Dangerous Goods Panel may adopt new, more restrictive international air transport regulations on lithium metal batteries.  More on that issue for the next blog.