November 8, 2011 08:41
Yesterday was a good day for renewable fuels enthusiasts and not because someone figured out how to make ethanol cocktails from pond scum. In Houston American renewable fuel use literally took off on its maiden flight and in Washington the Supreme Court denied certiorari in a suit brought by the oil industry challenging the USEPA's regulations promulgating a revised renewable fuels standard.
In National Petrochemical Refiners Association and the American Petroleum Institute v. EPA, the plaintiffs asserted the EPA's final rule, Regulation of Fuels and Fuel Additives: Changes to Renewable Fuel Standard Program, 75 Fed. Reg. 14,670 (Mar. 26, 2010), was invalid because it "violate[d] statutory requirements setting separate biomass-based diesel volume requirements for 2009 and 2010; [was] impermissibly retroactive; and it violate[d] statutory lead time and compliance provisions." 630 F.3d 145, 147 (D.C. Cir. 2010). From those arguments, one might justifiably conclude that watching paint dry would be far more exciting than this opinion; we will leave it to others to explicate. E.g., see the case comment in the Texas Journal of Oil, Gas and Energy Law Blog. In any event, the court of appeals denied all of petitioners' arguments and left EPA's rulemaking completely intact. The Supreme Court saw no reason to step in.
What does the standard mean in the real world? It is huge. Among other things, according to the EPA's website it raised the mandated volume of renewable components in motor vehicle fuel from 9 billion gallons in 2008 to 36 billion gallons by 2022. And it "appl[ied] lifecycle greenhouse gas performance threshold standards to ensure that each category of renewable fuel emits fewer greenhouse gases than the petroleum fuel it replaces." In other words, if one measures all the greenhouse gases emitted in the production of, for example, one gallon of corn-derived ethanol, fewer gases would be emitted than in the production of one gallon of gasoline.
But the standard is not huge for airlines. It only applies to motor vehicle fuel. 42 U.S.C. § 7545(o)(1)(C)(i). Nevertheless, airlines are starting to line up for renewable fuels. A case in point is the news story in yesterday's Houston Chronicle, Algae helps power flight to Chicago. The gist of the story is that a United Airlines Boeing 737 lifted off from George Bush Intercontinental Airport for Chicago with a fuel tank filled with a blend derived from algae and conventional aviation fuel. Passengers noted nothing different despite participating in history. As stated by United: "the first U.S. airline to fly passengers using a blend of sustainable, advanced biofuel and traditional petroleum-derived jet fuel." More details are provided in the press releases from Solazyme (the biofuel manufacturer) and United. The blend was 40/60 algae to conventional fuels, complied with the ASTM D7566 specification for aviation fuel, and is a "drop-in replacement for petroleum-based fuel, requiring no modification to factory-standard engines or aircraft." Tomorrow Alaska Airlines takes off with used cooking oil product in its tanks. The price for this "green" fuel? One internet source puts it at between $17 and $26 per gallon.
Is this cutting edge? For the United States, yes, for Europe not at all. Lufthansa flies 8 flights daily to and from Hamburg and Frankfurt using 50% biofuel in one engine. The press release goes on to explain the single engine: "next to reducing CO2 emissions, the main aim of this long-term operational trial, [is] to examine the effects of biofuel on the maintenance and lifespan of aircraft engines." That is, the two engines will be torn down to the last o-ring at the next overhaul and compared, providing valuable data for future operations.
Both United and Lufthansa emphasize the role renewable fuel has in their sustainability initiatives. Good public relations and potential competitive advantage may be reason enough to incorporate biofuels. But besides green-ness can $17 per gallon be justified? It might be if it could reduce costs elsewhere, and faithful readers have already figured out where that might be. As we reported recently, the EU will start imposing carbon emission fees on flights originating or terminating in the European Union. Bio-fueled flights can get credits and reduce their fees. With that, a little innovation, some economies of scale, and some luck, we might soon find ourselves enjoying a little pond scum at 30,000 feet.