Aviation group forms to support sustainable biofuels

By Susanne Retka Schill
Web exclusive posted Sept. 26, 2008 at 11:08 a.m. CST

The Boeing Co. and UOP LLC, a Honeywell company, have joined forces with aviation leaders to accelerate the development and availability of sustainable biofuels.

With support and advice from two environmental groups, the World Wildlife Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group wants to make commercial aviation the first global transportation sector to voluntarily drive sustainability practices into its fuel supply chain.

Airlines supporting the sustainable fuels initiative include Air France, Air New Zealand, All Nippon Airways, Cargolux, Gulf Air, Japan Airlines, KLM, SAS and Virgin Atlantic Airways. Collectively, they account for approximately 15 percent of commercial jet fuel use.

The sustainable aviation group's charter is to enable the commercial use of renewable fuel sources that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while lessening commercial aviation's exposure to oil price volatility and dependence on fossil fuels. The sustainability pledge signed by each of the participants (available on Boeing's Web site) lists four points as the minimum criteria for sustainable aviation fuels:

1. Jet fuel plant sources should be developed in a manner which is non-competitive with food and where biodiversity impacts are minimized; in addition, the cultivation of those plant sources should not jeopardize drinking water supplies.

2. Total lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions from plant growth, harvesting, processing, and end-use should be significantly reduced compared to those associated with jet fuels from fossil sources.

3. In developing economies, development projects should include provisions or outcomes that improve socio-economic conditions for small-scale farmers who rely on agriculture to feed them and their families, and that do not require the involuntary displacement of local populations.

4. High conservation value areas and native ecosystems should not be cleared and converted for jet fuel plant source development.

The pledge document commits the group to working in conjunction with the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels "Version Zero" report, a document outlining the first draft of criteria for sustainable biofuels developed by a diverse group of international stakeholders.

"The use of second-generation feedstocks is the only way that biofuels will successfully make an impact on the growing demand for transportation fuels without taxing valuable food, land and water resources," said Jennifer Holmgren, general manager for UOP's renewable energy and chemicals unit. "We are proud to be a part of this team and are committed to commercializing biofuels technologies that use second-generation resources to produce the highest quality fuel compatible with today's infrastructure and aircraft technology."

"This is a tremendous opportunity for leading airlines, supported by well-respected energy and environmental organizations, to help commercial aviation take control of its future fuel supply in terms of origin, sustainability and environmental impacts," said Billy Glover, managing director of environmental strategy for Boeing Commercial Airplanes. "The number one priority going forward is to complete thorough assessments of sustainable plant sources, harvesting and economic impacts, and processing technologies that can help achieve that goal."

The group has announced two initial sustainability research projects. With funding provided by Boeing, Rob Bailis, an assistant professor in Yale University's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, will conduct the first peer-reviewed, comprehensive sustainability assessment of jatropha to include lifecycle carbon dioxide emissions and the socio-economic impacts to farmers in developing nations. In the second, the Natural Resources Defense Council will conduct a comprehensive assessment of algae to ensure it meets the group's stringent sustainability criteria.

"This taskforce comes at just the right time to help airlines cut costs and decrease their greenhouse gas emissions," said Liz Barratt-Brown, Natural Resources Defense Council's senior attorney. "If done right, sustainable biofuels could lower the airlines' carbon footprint at a time when all industries need to be moving away from fuels with high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, especially high carbon tar sands and liquid coal."