The US Department of Agriculture has been working all the angles for the Department of Defense, in an effort to include more aviation biofuel in our military’s energy mix. The latest development is a new five-year extension of the USDA’s “Farm to Fly” initiative, which will build on a previous three-year agreement between the agency, Boeing, and other public and private partners to develop aviation biofuels from non-food feedstocks.
The new extension was announced on April 15 and it provides a simple, but compelling policy counterpoint to the Arkansas tar sands oil spill that occurred just a few weeks ago: continued dependency on petroleum poses a growing threat to water resources and property values, while a sustainable, national biofuel policy can mitigate those risks while helping to promote economic development in underserved rural communities.
Farm-to-table, Farm to Fly
In the not too distant past, energy production was far down on USDA’s to-do list, but its role stepped up under the Bush Administration with a federal corn ethanol initiative. It has grown exponentially under the Obama Administration and the focus has shifted to non-food biofuel feedstocks.
As a federal government echo of the farm-to-table movement, Farm to Fly is rooted in the classic USDA mission of promoting agricultural development as an essential element of the general welfare, ensuring the nation of the steady, abundant and sustainable domestic production of a fundamental commodity while promoting rural economic development.
The first Farm to Fly initiative began in October 2010, as a means of combining the research and policy expertise of federal agriculture and air transportation agencies, along with Boeing Company and the trade organization Airlines for America, Inc., which advocates for sustainable aviation fuel, among other issues.
Along with researching the suitability of different non-food biomass feedstocks for jet fuels, the partnership also developed a tool for tracking the supply chain readiness of potential feedstocks, including the development of biomass-to-fuel conversion technology.
The USDA also began funding six coordinated agricultural projects that focus on developing regional systems for sustainable biofuel production. Three are focused specifically on developing jet fuels from forestry waste, woody biomass and switchgrass.
The new Farm to Fly end goal is to help develop a mainstream U.S. biofuel industry that is capable of producing about 1 billion gallons of drop-in aviation biofuel by 2018.
The “drop-in” qualifier is essential. It refers to biofuels that can meet or exceed the performance of conventional petroleum fuels, and that can be shipped, transferred and used without the need to modify shipping containers, pipelines, pumps, hoses, fuel tanks or engines.
Risk, regionalization, and green jobs
One thing that’s important to note about liquid biofuel is its vulnerability to transportation risks, as with any other liquid fuel or chemical. That includes pipeline spills and breaks as well as accidents on roadways and rail lines.
However, biofuels do have one major risk advantage over petroleum in terms of the transportation of the crude feedstock. The biofuel equivalent of crude oil is not a liquid, it is solid biomass, and the typical range of shipment to a biorefinery is measured in tens of miles, not hundreds.
The contrast is particularly sharp in the case of the Keystone XL pipeline, the proposed route of which will take a chemically diluted tar sands oil slurry across thousands of miles and hundreds of waterways down the midsection of the U.S., from Canada to refineries along the Gulf Coast.
When it comes to shipping the refined products to consumer distribution points, biofuels also hold a potential advantage. The hyper-local nature of biofuel refining, combined with the potential availability of different biofuel crops in every region of the U.S., should lead to regionalized distribution systems that help reduce the distances, and thereby the risks, involved in refinery-to-sales point transportation.
In terms of economic development, a sustainably managed biofuel crop policy would also have the potential to bring new energy jobs to rural areas where no petroleum reserves exist.
That is basically what the Obama Administration has working been toward, through Farm to Fly and other biofuel programs.
Farm to Fly versus fossil fuels
From a national security imperative, domestic food production is equally as important as domestic energy production, and to a great extent agricultural productivity is dependent on energy production, too.
However, the two have always been uneasy neighbors in terms of land use and water resource issues, and they are on an accelerating collision course as “easy” fossil fuel fields have tapped out. The end result is the development of tar sands oil as well as an increase in the gas and oil drilling method called hydrofracturing (aka fracking). In the context of an aging oil pipeline infrastructure and gaping regulatory loopholes, both pose a threat to the nation’s inland water resources and consequently to the sustainability of the nation’s agriculture, which itself now includes a growing energy crop sector.
Add to that the interest of the Department of Defense in developing a vigorous domestic biofuel industry in support of energy security, particularly regarding aviation biofuel for the Air Force and Navy, and you can see where high risk fossil fuel projects like the Keystone pipeline seem forced and seriously out of date.