Imagine an entirely new industry that creates a big new market for Idaho’s farmers and eventually loggers. It taps the scientific know-how of Idaho universities and the Idaho National Laboratory.
It would have the U.S. military and two of the Pacific Northwest’s leading companies, Boeing and Alaska Airlines putting their weight behind it. And it would be tied to a worldwide effort to develop a aviation biofuel industry that could replace 20 percent of jet fuel in less than a decade.
Consider that producing 475 million gallons of biofuel, which would be enough to create a 50-percent biofuel blend to meet the Northwest’s aviation demand, would create an estimated 23,000 jobs across the economy, add $4.1 billion to GDP growth and $445 million in federal tax revenues, and $383 million for state and local governments, a study showed.
Oregon and Washington leaders already imagined this but so far Idaho is only nominally on board. Boeing, Alaska Airlines, the operators of the region’s three largest airports – Port of Seattle, Port of Portland and Spokane International Airport – and Washington State University launched Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest in 2010, the first regional group exploring aviation biofuels on a bioregional basis.
Officials from Boeing and Climate Solutions, the group the companies and airports engaged to moderate the effort, laid out their ambitious plans at the Harvesting Clean Energy conference held this week at the Boise Centre on the Grove. Boeing’s Michael Hurd revealed the jet manufacturing giant’s goal to produce one percent of the world’s jet fuel demand – about 500 to 600 million gallons—by 2015.
That’s four years from now. This Northwest consortium is working toward developing a plant to begin production to meet this goal.
But if you notice, the Boise Airport is not included. None of Idaho’s industries are directly involved. But its universities, the Idaho National Laboratory and the agriculture industry are jumping on board.
With the Mountain Home Air Force Base only 35 miles away, and thousands of acres of Idaho farmland ideal for oilseed production, there would seem to be opportunity for Idaho to make a place for an aviation biofuel production facility.
What’s the downside? The entire program is based on the aviation industry’s goal to reach carbon neutral growth by 2020 and cut its petroleum jet fuel demand by half by 2050 while continuing its projected 5.1 percent growth of GDP.
Carbon? The carbon neutral goal based on the premise that rapid climate change is caused by the burning of fossil fuels and that stopping it may reduce the effects.
That is not a politically popular view in Idaho and among Republicans and coal-state Democrats nationwide. As Boeing was pushing the biofuel proposal in Boise Monday, the House voted to exclude U.S. airlines from a carbon emissions cap-and-trade program that the European Union plans to impose on all airlines flying to and from the continent beginning next year.
But Hurd pointed out that moving to biofuels also reduces our reliance on petroleum from unstable places like the Middle East. That’s why the military has made this a priority, he said.
And the aviation industry is moving forward on its own. “Even if you are skeptical about climate change the market is saying it’s concerned,” said Patrick Massa, research director for the Washington-based group Climate Solutions.
The consortium’s goal is to develop feedstocks that don’t compete today with food, such as ethanol has done with corn, driving up prices. The U.S. Department of Agriculture offered a program in Washington to encourage farmers to grow camelina, a oil seed plant, that already has been used in jet fuel used by the Air Force’s Thunderbirds.
But there were no takers in part because they weren’t offering enough money to make the commitment pay, even on marginal lands. There were farmers at the conference this week promoting the idea though because they see potential for the crop in North Idaho and the dryland farms of eastern Idaho as well.
In the long run, wood residues from logging and the forest industry offer even more opportunity down the line. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced an $80 million biofuels research program that will be led by the universities of Washington and Washington State.
Idaho will get some of that money but how much may be decided by how much the state’s farmers, industry and government gets behind the effort. They will have to see what's in it for Idaho.
“We need continued strong investment in research,” said Boeing’s Hurd.