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Tina Casey headshot

Alaska Air Group Follows United Airlines into Biofuel's Wild Green Yonder

By Tina Casey

If it seems like biofuel for airplanes is all the rage this week, you're right. On Monday, United Airlines became America's first commercial airline to use an algae based biofuel, and today Alaska Air Group will become the first to fly on a synthetic jet fuel derived from recycled cooking oil, with 75 flights scheduled for its subsidiaries Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air.

At first glance, Alaska Air Group's move may seem like a case of corporate scene-stealing, sustainability style. However, the rapidly emerging jet biofuel trend is no ad hoc competition to see who can be first on the green bandwagon. Rather, it is part of the Obama Administration's intensively coordinated federal policy aimed at transitioning both the U.S. civilian economy and the armed services out of a fossil fuel dependency that has become an increasing liability in terms of military effectiveness, water resources, public health, and economic security.

Aviation Biofuel, National Defense and Free Advertising

The announcements by United and Alaska follow on a yearlong effort by the U.S. military to build public confidence in alternative aviation fuels. Over Labor Day, for example, the Navy's legendary Blue Angels demonstration team performed on a 50-50 blend derived from the weedy plant Camelina, and the equally legendary Air Force Thunderbirds team has also been putting on public demonstrations of Camelina biofuel. In effect, the military is providing a free public relations hook for commercial aviation biofuels, as well as giving airlines an easy answer for customers who need reassurance that biofuel is a safe, reliable alternative to petroleum fuel.

Growing the Commercial Market for Aviation Biofuel

As part of a massive investment in renewable energy, the U.S. Department of Defense has also been testing biofuels on other aircraft such as helicopters as well as marine vessels and ground vehicles. Unfortunately, DoD's potential demand far outstrips the current supply of biofuel. The problem is that while the U.S. military is a major individual consumer of fuel, it accounts for only a fraction of overall energy consumption in the U.S. Demand from the military sector alone is not enough to spur significant private investment in biofuel crops and biorefineries. What is needed is increased demand from the civilian sector, and in order to accomplish that President Obama issued a national biofuel directive last March. That resulted in the formation of $510 million program partnering the Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture with the private sector, in order to develop biofuels for both military and commercial use.

Green Jobs - The Last Piece of the Aviation Biofuel Puzzle

Raising biofuel crops, transporting feedstocks, building and operating biorefineries, and developing new types of biofuels - a growing commercial and military market for aviation biofuel translates into thousands of new green jobs, most of which could be located in withering and long-neglected rural communities. Here again, the Obama administration has laid the groundwork with an initiative announced during his well-publicized bus tour last summer, specifically focused on creating sustainable rural economies through biofuel production. The Administration was also careful to coordinate the announcement with the release of an updated study on U.S. biomass potential, seeking to demonstrate that additional land could be devoted to biofuel crops without compromising land for food crops.

A Sustainable National Energy Policy

All of this is unfolding as protests mount against the Keystone XL Pipeline, a massive project that would move petroleum from Canada's notorious Albeta tar sands to the Gulf Coast. The pipeline represents the precise opposite of President Obama's focus on growing the domestic biofuel industry: despite its proponents' claims, the project involves few permanent jobs along its path through rural communities, it poses a potential risk to water supplies and agricultural lands across a midsection of the U.S., and it accomplishes nothing toward the goal of relieving the U.S. military from the burden of fossil fuel dependency. The President recently announced that he would make a decision on the pipeline soon, so it will be interesting to see which path he takes. Stay tuned.

Image credit: Alaska Airlines by skinnylawyer on flickr.com.

Twitter: @TinaMCasey

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

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.

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