Northwest could be development hub for aviation biofuels

By:  Staff Writer
Source: The Olympian

Research and development is still the name of the game in creation of a biofuels supply for aviation. 

Abundant supplies of biofuels for use by domestic airlines and the military are still a long ways away. But the fledgling aviation alternative fuels industry should be supported on several fronts.

Some high-ranking aerospace officials and politicians would like to see the Pacific Northwest emerge as a leader in production of renewable biofuels that can compete with traditional petroleum jet fuel.

This is a worthwhile goal that will require a lot more work to become a reality. Some of the underpinnings for a successful industry are already here in the form of the Boeing Co., Alaska Airlines and the millions of acres of forests, farmlands and coastal areas capable of producing fuel from woody debris, crops and algae.

In addition, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash, who chairs the Senate subcommittee on aviation, is working on the Federal Aviation Administration to support an aviation biofuel research center in the Tri-Cities near a couple of likely partners — the Washington State University branch campus and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Her efforts, joined by Sen. Patty Murray and Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Jay Inslee, deserve the support of Congress.

At the state level, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed into law last week a bill that would allow companies that want to build private jet biofuels production plant access to low-interest revenue bonds.

Airlines have a lot to gain from emergence of a successful biofuels industry. Fuel is a major operating expense for them. For instance, Alaska Airlines sees a boost in their bottom line by about  $3.25 million every time the price of jet fuel drops one penny per gallon. Conversely, fuel price increases drive up costs and that increases the cost of airline fares.

Few may know this, but Alaska Airlines for three weeks late last year used a jet fuel that consisted of 20 percent cooking oil in 75 Boeing 737 cross-country flights. But it was just an experiment because the biofuel was too expensive – $17 per gallon or more than four times the price of regular fuel – and production is not at the level to support a major switch to biofuels.

Biofuels also reduce the aviation industry and military dependence on finite petroleum products, which produce climate-changing greenhouse gases.

“Biofuels is a necessary component for the industry,” Mike Hurd, Boeing’s director of environmental strategy, told The Seattle Times in a story outlining the status of the jet biofuels industry.

The right combination of private-sector investment and public funding could help this industry lift off.

It would also help if Congress and the Obama administration took action on two key policies. They include:

• Reinstate a $1 per gallon tax credit for companies that blend biofuels with traditional fuels. That tax credit was one of the victims of the highly partisan battle in Congress last December over renewing payroll tax cuts and extending unemployment benefits.

• Require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to boost the renewable fuel standard in blended fuels. Just a small increase in the  1 billion gallons of biodiesel fuel required to be mixed into national transportation fuel supplies this year could provide a supply-and-demand shot in the arm.

Airlines have shown that biofuels can be used safely in commercial airplanes. But it will require more private and public sector support for this category of renewable fuel to compete with standard jet fuel.