Northwest consortium aiming to become hub for aviation biofuels

May 25, 2011

A new industry is emerging in the Pacific Northwest – for development, production and distribution of aviation biofuels.

A consortium called Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest has just spent ten months producing an exhaustive study.  They've identified the four-state region of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana as a serious contender in the race to produce environmentally friendly jet fuels.

"Customers care a lot about this issue. They want low fares, but they also care about the environment," says Alaska Airlines Chairman and CEO Bill Ayer.  "And maybe that's even more true in the Pacific Northwest than in other parts of the country. But we sure hear that.  And we do surveys and we talk to our customers a lot and this is an important issue, for all of us." 

Ayer was one of the bigger names helping present the study during a press conference at Sea-Tac Airport.  Boeing was also there.  The jetmaker's VP for environmental issues, Billy Glover, told the gathering, Boeing has been testing aviation biofuel for the past five years and has concluded it's superior to petroleum.  

Researchers at Washington State University are also involved and have been conducting intensive agricultural studies of what's feasible. They say they still need more investment in startups that would do everything from cultivating new feed stocks for the fuel, (such as algae and Camelina seed), to creating pipelines and refueling stations. 

Boeing Vice President Billy Glover helped present the findings during a news conference at Sea-Tac airport.  He says continuing with a wide variety of feedstocks is an important part of the strategy – and also supporting development of different processing methods. 

"We have a couple processing methods that are maturing now.  We have many more that are ahead of us," Glover says. "All of those are opportunities for improvement. So we see a very clear pathway to the future, a very bright future. " 

He says  the more they can produce, the more cost effective they'll become.

The study says with the right federal support, this new industry could create 200,000 jobs. Other countries competing in this space include New Zealand, China and Mexico. 

Not a case of food vs fuel

Biofuels have come in and out of fashion over the last decade. Controversy has brewed over the greenhouse gasses their production can create.  And some companies have come under fire, for displacing food production by using corn as the basis for biofuels. 

But the group that refers to itself by the acronym SAFN says that's not an issue for them.  They've included watchdogs in their list of stakeholders.

"I think this is one of the best exercises done, to really look at biofuels sustainability anywhere," says Patrick Mazza, chief researcher with the non-profit think tank, Climate Solutions.  He wrote the report and says they're not at all worried about displacing food production with this new initiative.

"We're looking at materials that don't compete in food markets and don't compete for arable land and ideally, take biomass we're under-utilizing now, like the organic matter that goes into landfills, or slash-piles at logging sites, which are just being burned or decaying into the atmosphere." 

They're making their case in the other Washington now.  A briefing is scheduled for 10:30 am ET at the Senate Visitors Center, where they've enjoyed political support from Senate Democrats Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray.

But they insist this is a bi-partisan effort and are hoping for more support from the Pentagon as this new industrial cluster matures, says John Gardner, who has been spearheading research efforts at Washington State University on agriculture's role in aviation biofuel.

"This is not a flash in the pan," Gardner says. "We're in this for the long-term, for a fuel that's going to be sustainable from an economic perspective and an environmental perspective."