U.S. company OriginOil has just announced that its signature algae biofuel product will be developed as a drop-in renewable crude oil feedstock that can be processed by existing petroleum refineries. That, alone, is big news because it brings renewable biofuel closer to the mass market and closer to cost-competitiveness with petroleum products. The even bigger news, though, is the impact on sustainable U.S. job creation in the energy sector.
Rather than depending on high-risk energy infrastructure projects such as the notorious Keystone XL Pipeline, OriginOil's new algae biofuel venture could pave the way for preserving jobs in the refinery sector even as the U.S. transitions out of petroleum fuels - and that's just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to creating permanent new jobs related to algae growing, algae farming operations could also double as carbon capture systems at coal-fired power plants and other industrial facilities. Try that with a pile of tar sand!
Algae, Keystone, Jobs, and Politics
Before we get into the nitty gritty of OriginOil's refinery-ready algae oil, let's take a brief look at the timing of the announcement. OriginOil released the news on January 13, smack in the middle of a sixty-day deadline under which the Obama administration must decide whether or not to approve the Keystone project (the pipeline is owned by the Canadian company, TransCanada, to bring crude oil from the Alberta tar sands down through the Midwestern U.S. and on to Gulf Coast refineries for export).
Though initially touted as a job creator by its supporters, upon closer examination, the fact-based estimate on job creation from the pipeline has dwindled to an insignificant few. That didn't stop Republican Senator John Hoeven from repeating the now-discredited job creation estimate in the Republican weekly address on January 14, which adds more fuel to the Keystone fire in advance of the 2012 presidential election.
Green Refinery Jobs from Algae Biofuel
In this context, the OriginOil announcement is something of a bombshell. The availability of a new drop-in replacement for crude oil means that the Keystone pipeline is not needed as a job creator in the energy sector. It would only put jobs in other sectors at risk, since it runs right through the nation's agricultural heartland and a massive aquifer. With algae oil feedstock at the ready, U.S. refineries could keep on humming along even as the supply of petroleum feedstock stagnates or even dwindles. Rather than having to pipe crude thousands of miles from one source, algae farming also raises the potential for a network of local sources, which cuts the risk of pipeline leaks, spills and accidents to a bare minimum. It also raises the potential for diverting more fuel to the domestic market, which is consistent with the Obama Administration's strategy for transitioning the U.S. military to utilize more secure, locally sourced forms of energy (just ask the U.S. Navy, for one).
Renewable Algae Biofuel Helps Industry, Too
In addition to boosting the diversity of the U.S. energy landscape, algae biofuel offers a means to enable sustainable industrial growth without a consequent increase in carbon dioxide emissions. As a form of plant life, algae thrive on carbon dioxide, and OriginOil is already developing a system for capturing carbon from power plants. Aside from cutting down on emissions, the captured carbon would boost the productivity of algae farms, so it's a win-win. This year, the company has partnered with MBD Energy of Australia in a pilot carbon capture project at one of the three largest coal-fired power plants in the country, which is expected to trim the power plant's carbon dioxide emissions by more than half.The Road to Renewable Algae Biofuel - and More Jobs
OriginOil's drop-in algae biofuel project is a partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy, through the Department's Idaho National Laboratory. OriginOil's CEO Riggs Eckelberry envisions a system in which algae growers can process their own algae oil into drop-in crude "right on site," rather than having to send it elsewhere. That local job creation potential is consistent with President Obama's biofuel initiative, which is focused on building economic sustainability into chronically underserved rural communities, by creating new jobs in the biofuel industry. This decentralized, community-oriented approach to domestic job creation is a far cry from the alternative presented by the Keystone project, which would contribute virtually nothing to the communities along its path. If there were no other alternatives, legislators like Senator Hoeven could make a better case for approving this project, but it looks like OriginOil is pulling the rug out from under their feet.
Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.
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.