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.