If there are still any doubts that biofuels are ready for the big time, last week's announcement by United Airlines, Boeing, and UOP (a Honeywell company) should put them to rest. The three industry heavyweights have joined with the Chicago Department of Aviation and the Clean Energy Trust to form the Midwest Aviation Sustainable Biofuels Initiative.
If the new initiative - MASBI for short - lives up to its name, the result will be a regional plan for the sustainable development of a biofuel economy, rather than a willy-nilly rush to exploit available resources. That's a pretty big if, so let's see what the organization can offer in terms of giving commercial biofuels a big boost while ensuring that water conservation, land preservation and other sustainability issues don't fall by the wayside.
Building the aviation biofuel supply chain
United was the first commercial airline in the U.S. to use algae biofuel, and its leadership role in the new initiative confirms that the company is engaged in a focused effort to cement the position of domestically sourced biofuels in its supply chain.
A strong biofuel supply chain has the potential to cushion petroleum fuel price shocks and global market swings that have created so many headaches for the aviation industry.
United's managing director of Global Environmental Affairs and Sustainability, Jimmy Samartzis, is eagerly anticipating a better future:
"Our industry is committed to advancing sustainable biofuels, and United is proud to launch MASBI with our partners to define appropriate solutions to make alternative fuel available at commercial scale, unlock the Midwest's economic potential for advanced biofuels and secure a sustainable future for aviation."
Bad timing for biofuels
Unfortunately, some members of Congress chose last week to throw a wet blanket over the aviation industry's enthusiasm, as committees in the House and Senate voted to block the Department of Defense from purchasing biofuels. That would deprive the biofuel industry of a key early-adopting customer (the new policy actually prohibits the purchase of alternative fuels that cost more than fossil fuels, but the effect is the same).
The aviation industry group A4A joined with the agriculture industry and other stakeholders to petition the Senate to reconsider its decision to block biofuel purchased by the military, but in the meantime it seems that some members of Congress are not as interested in economic development as they claim to be.
MASBI and the Bioeconomy Blueprint
However, the MASBI announcement also follows close on the unveiling of a more positive development, in the form of a new national economic development plan unveiled by the Obama Administration called the National Bioeconomy Blueprint.
The Bioeconomy Blueprint is designed to create jobs and stimulate investment by using federal resources to speed the transition from fossil fuel dependency into a more sustainable, healthful and diversified mix of fuels, chemicals and other products.
As previously noted in Triple Pundit, the rapid development of a strong bioeconomy is a key element in the Pentagon's long term national defense strategy. To underscore that relationship, the advisory council of MASBI includes the Department of the Navy along with the Department of Agriculture and other federal agencies.
The Bioeconomy Blueprint focuses strongly on sustainability and it's pretty clear that at least structurally MASBI is set up to follow along the same lines. As for its follow through, that will depend on the organization's willingness to work with stakeholders, and on the continued transition of federal economic policy toward sustainable development.
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Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.