AIN Blog: Biojet Cocktail May Produce a Big Hangover

 - July 20, 2011, 10:54 AM

At this year’s Paris Air Show, some big players bellied up to the biojet bar. Boeing flew one of its new 747-8s from the U.S. to the show fueled by a mix of 85-percent jet-A and 15-percent camelina plant oil derivative; Honeywell–the jet-engine and avionics manufacturer–made the trip using a 50-50 mix in a Gulfstream G450.

The good news is that no engines were fried and nobody died. Historically, jet engines run well on a jet-A/biofuel mix with modest 1- to 2-percent improvements in fuel consumption and significant emissions reductions. The technology isn’t complicated and you can make the stuff from almost anything: algae, plant oils and even lawn clippings.

The bad news is that widespread adaptation of aviation biofuels will dramatically increase the cost of flying, either directly at the pump or indirectly via coercive government taxation coupled with heavy public-sector subsidies to the biofuel makers. And all this is in the name of cutting aviation’s carbon emissions, which account for less than 2 percent of all manmade emissions worldwide.

Want to see where this is headed? Look no further than the money-losing ethanol debacle for auto fuels. Forget about the way it has distorted corn prices and imposed double-digit food inflation. The U.S. government subsidizes this effort to the tune of $1.78 a gallon, according to Steven Rattner, a former Treasury official. It takes more energy to make the ethanol than it saves, and its refining markedly adds to the overall carbon footprint. Jet biofuel is likely headed down this same trail of tears.

Historically, the aviation industry has embraced any market-based solution that improves efficiency and saves money. Today’s jetliners are 70-percent more efficient than the 707s and DC-8s my grandparents flew on. Aviation Partners of Seattle estimates its “blended winglets” have saved the airlines more than 2.5 billion gallons of fuel by improving aircraft performance. Composite structures cut aircraft weight. New jet engines coming on line are 16- to 20-percent more efficient, quieter and much cleaner than the ones of only a decade ago. New air-traffic-control technology promises to produce more direct routing, cutting travel times and fuel burns by double-digit percentages. All these things make good economic sense.

Making a gallon of jet biofuel can cost up to 12 times as much as making a gallon of jet-A. So how does one rationalize biofuels? Simple: artificially distort the market.

What the biofuel lobby is proposing on the front-end is a global carbon-emission standard for aircraft. The International Civil Aviation Organization hopes to have a standard in place by 2013. It’s analogous to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s CAFÉ (corporate average fuel economy) standards developed in the 1970s. It would provide a yardstick to aggressively tax those who do not meet the standard.

This cake already is in the oven. Look at the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme and at Australia, which is getting ready to impose a carbon tax on jet fuel that will hit domestic airlines there with an extra $930 million in costs over the next four years.

It’s easy to see why Boeing and Honeywell are on board this train wreck: older airplanes with older engines produce more emissions. Tax the emissions and you make new aircraft and new aircraft engines more attractive.

But current aircraft technology alone will not be enough to achieve the holy grail of “carbon-neutral growth,” so that is where the biofuels come in–you can double the number of airplanes out there yet maintain today’s carbon footprint. It’s a feel-good cocktail that comes with a big tab. Richard Wynne, Boeing’s director of environment and aviation policy, admitted to me earlier this year, “We’re going to have to have some kind of government support, which is why we are working the policy.”

Translation: get ready for the hangover.