Farnborough Air Show

Washington State Governor Criticizes Congress Over Biofuels Block

 - July 9, 2012, 3:50 AM

Last November, Christine Gregoire, governor of the U.S. state of Washington, announced an “action agenda” with the central goal of convincing Boeing to build the reengined 737 MAX in her state. Here at the Farnborough International Air show, where she is leading a trade mission, the governor can rightfully claim credit for accomplishing that goal. But the state still faces headwinds in its quest to retain and further grow its aerospace industrial base.

In large part, those headwinds are blowing westward from Washington, D.C., where the federal government resides. The promotion of sustainable, cleaner-burning aviation biofuels derived from plants, which could help airlines meet emissions targets and eventually offset the cost of petroleum-based fuel, is a case in point.

Washington state and its neighbors in the U.S. Pacific Northwest region have staked out a leadership position in the development of aviation biofuels. Seattle-based Alaska Airlines and Boeing have been out front in the industry’s efforts to use and commercialize them. Yet, in May, the U.S. House and Senate armed services committees each approved language that would prohibit the Department of Defense from acquiring alternative fuels that exceed the cost of traditional fossil fuel. The language is contained in committee drafts of the Fiscal Year 2013 defense authorization bill that awaited approval from the full Congress.

In an exclusive interview with AIN, Gregoire was outspoken in criticizing the committees’ actions. “I’m very disappointed,” said the two-term Democrat, who has announced that she will not seek a third term this year. “The fact of the matter is, we were projecting that we were going to be able to develop about five commercial-scale bio refineries around the country. This was seen by [Washington state] as a big opportunity to land one of those.”

Gregoire said she has had numerous discussions on the issue with Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, who has led military efforts to advance biofuels. Last August, Mabus and the secretaries of Energy and Agriculture announced their “intention,” pending approval by Congress, to invest $510 million over three years to assist private industry in developing biofuels for Navy ships and aircraft, including the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet and Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey.

“This will undercut that,” Gregoire said. “I find the whole thing quite puzzling. I find it very shortsighted. There is a clear demand. The commercial arena is pushing and leading on it. I would have expected the Department of Defense, frankly, to lead in this arena, not to follow the commercial sector. I sure hope Congress reconsiders and puts them back in the game.”

Local Successes

The Washington state government in Olympia has nevertheless achieved success in some of the major priorities in its own backyard.

In the spring of 2011, when Boeing was contemplating new production sites for the reengined 737 MAX, Gregoire launched “Project Pegasus,” a coalition of community, labor and business organizations formed to identify and take the steps necessary to convince Boeing of the state’s “compelling value proposition.” She led a state delegation to the Paris Air Show for the first time that June and sought to impress upon labor representatives “how internationally competitive” aerospace is, using Le Bourget as a backdrop.

Upon returning from Paris, Gregoire said she encouraged Boeing and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) to come to terms on a new contract, “because that was, in my opinion, critical to our ability to secure the 737.” In November, Gregoire announced an “action agenda” to bolster the state’s education system in turning out a trained aerospace work force, focusing the series of steps on winning the 737 MAX.

Late last year, Boeing and the IAM agreed on a new four-year contract that includes a Boeing commitment to build the 737 MAX in Renton, Washington, where current 737s are manufactured. The state estimates the 737 MAX will support 20,000 jobs directly and indirectly. “We thought it was extremely important for us to be able to secure the 737 MAX, and at the same time to have a new contract between labor and management that would go out a number of years. Both occurred,” Gregoire said. “The fact that we’re going to be able to retain the 737 MAX is very important to Washington state.”

Universities Step Up

Meanwhile, the bulk of the governor’s action agenda won approval in the state legislature, and Gregoire said she convinced the leaderships of the University of Washington and Washington State University to provide appropriate funding for 850 additional engineering slots per year. In March, Gregoire signed legislation that is designed to advance the development “of commercial-scale aviation biofuels production facilities” by streamlining the permitting process for new facilities and providing access to low-cost financing through the issuance of state revenue bonds.

The governor said she is “quite pleased” with the progress made toward biofuels development during her eight years in office. “When I think about when I came into office, there was virtually nothing going on,” she said. “There’s so much going on now: in production and in research and in the commercial willingness through Alaska [Airlines’]” demonstrated use of biofuels.

“As I see it,” she added, “the problem is unless and until we grow sufficient demand, we won’t drive down the price. That’s why it was so critical for the Department of Defense to get engaged and involved. Those in the private sector need to know that there is going to be a continuing demand for it, and only with that are they going to be able to drive down the price.”

Still promoting aerospace, Gregoire embarked on a trade mission to Ireland and the UK on July 4 that included scheduled stops at Bombardier’s Belfast operation in Northern Ireland and the Airbus wing assembly plant in Broughton, Wales. More than 50 aerospace companies and consortiums from the state are exhibiting in Washington’s section of the U.S. Pavilion (Hall 2 Stand 28).