Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Biofuels on Maiden Voyage

An article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal by Scott McCartney covered the maiden voyage of a Virgin Atlantic Airlines Boeing 747 testing an 80% jet fuel/20% biofuel blend over the weekend. The fuel (oil) was derived from "naturally grown plants". The article states that the airlines are under mounting pressure to reduce GHGs that contribute to global warming, even though aviation's pollutants amounts to less than 3% of all emissions. The article points out that "...scientists have concerns that pollutants dropped directly into high altitudes may be more dangerous than those released on the ground."

Mr. McCartney points out an important technical distinction in the use of biofuels for aviation, in that the biofuels do not burn any cleaner in jet engines than kerosene (basis for jet fuel), with emissions approximately the same. "But proponents say biofuels can reduce total environmental damage by 20% because it is less harmful to produce." This reader believes that time will tell as the technology to mass produce these fuels gets better developed.

Interestingly, the article makes another comment regarding trends in thinking: "Environmentalists in Europe have begun to question whether ultra cheap tickets lead to frivolous travel and unnecessary pollution." This thought could synch with the notion put forth in the same article that suggests that airlines are not realizing that environmental issues, more than economic slowdowns or airspace congestion, may be the greatest threat to the future of air travel.

I can imagine a day when a tax on carbon emissions has an impact on the airlines' choice to burn release fewer GHGs emissions, but not until then. Or, worked another way, Mr. Branson of Virgin has called on the UK government to reduce taxes on passengers with airlines that reduce emissions, with savings passed directly to passengers. Mr. Branson's desire in this regard is kinda like the fuel hedging concept that Southwest so famously worked to their advantage until recently. My hat is off to him for trying, and maybe he will save some GHG emissions in the process of becoming more competitive.

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