Fly the environmentally friendly skies

There are more than 87,000 airlines taking flight each day in the United States, burning more than 1.56 million barrels of jet fuel. Why should we be concerned with these figures? Fuel is the largest expense for commercial airlines and is a cost that is transferred directly to the ticketed passengers and their cargo (think baggage fees) but more importantly, transportation generates a significant amount of emissions.

It is estimated that passenger and cargo planes use 23 billion gallons of fuel annually and, in 2015, flights produced 781 million tons of CO2 worldwide. In 2014, it was estimated that pollution from transportation made up 26% of that year’s 6,870 million metric tons of CO2, a greenhouse gas that traps heat and contributes to the gradual warming of the planet.

To help mitigate the impact jet fuel has on the environment, the Department of Agriculture, Boeing, the FAA, the aviation trade organization Airlines for America and several private partners teamed up to establish Farm to Fly 2.0 in hopes of developing 1 billion gallons of jet biofuel by 2018. Biofuel is made from a highly processed, renewable “feedstock” typically from agricultural residues, energy crops, forest resources, organic waste, and algae. The use of these, remarkably, would require no alteration to the jet engines.

Since the incorporation of Farm to Fly 2.0, FedEx and Southwest Airlines have agreed to purchase jet fuel from Red Rock Biofuels, which sources feedstock from sustainably forested land in Oregon. Red Rock Biofuels has agreed to supply up to three million gallons a year, and a total volume of 48 million gallons. Terry Kulesa, chief executive at Red Rock stated “We hope to build about 10 more plants in the next few years” so we can expect to see these numbers grow.

Not to be outdone, United Airlines invested $30 million dollars in Fulcrum Bioenergy, a company that uses municipal solid waste as feedstock to create low-carbon, renewable transportation fuel. Fulcrum Bioenergy received an investment in 2014 from Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific under an agreement to produce 375 million gallons of fuel for 10 years. And, in November 2016, BP announced a partnership with Fulcrum Bioenergy to invest $30 million dollars for a ten-year, 500 million gallon jet fuel supply.

Despite the drop in oil prices, with jet fuels falling to $1.01/gallon and airline tickets predicted to decrease, it certainly seems as though the United States airline industry is looking to the future to not only save costs, but to provide a sound energy future for the country by reducing dependence on fossil fuels and foreign oil.

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