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Originally published Thursday, May 26, 2011 at 3:41 PM

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Guest columnist

Harnessing Northwest strengths for sustainable aviation fuels

The Northwest is uniquely positioned to lead the development of a new aviation biofuels industry, write guest columnists Bill Ayer and Jim Albaugh. They argue the region is ideal to launch a pioneering effort to produce sustainable, low-carbon resources to power the future of flight.

Special to The Times

quotes Turn food and potential fertilizer into jet fuel and gasoline. Wonderful idea. Stupid... Read more
quotes Each added penny per gallon in the price of jet fuel translates into $175 million of ad... Read more
quotes billwald nailed it. The supply of so called "biomas" (= food) grows at... Read more

THE Pacific Northwest has the opportunity — and the assets — to become a leader in one of the most important issues facing our nation: developing a new aviation biofuels industry. But strong public and government support will be critical to get this effort off the ground.

Developing a sustainable, regional biofuels industry is a critical issue for aviation, and the impetus behind the nation's first regional stakeholder effort to explore the opportunities and challenges of producing alternative aviation fuels. A group called Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest (SAFN) released the results of its 10-month study this week. SAFN was led by Alaska Airlines, Boeing, the Northwest's three largest airports, and Washington State University, along with more than 40 other stakeholders.

The SAFN report identifies specific actions — from cultivating diverse biomass supplies to developing infrastructure and financing incentives — that should be taken to create a renewable-fuels supply chain that meets the aviation industry's rigorous safety and fuel standards.

SAFN also recommends that efforts to create a sustainable aviation biofuels industry should receive priority attention in policy development and commercial efforts.

In the Northwest, the aviation industry is a critical part of our economy. We are home not only to Alaska Airlines and Boeing, but three major airports: Sea-Tac, Portland and Spokane. In all, the commercial aviation industry is directly responsible for nearly 200,000 jobs. Nationally, aviation generates more than 5 percent of our GDP; about 1.8 million travelers fly on commercial airlines every day.

Compared with ground transportation sectors, aviation has fewer energy alternatives. Our jets need liquid, high-energy-density fuels similar to petroleum-based fuels. Airlines also are particularly vulnerable to the substantial oil price increases that have characterized global markets in recent years, heightening demands for alternative fuels. Each added penny per gallon in the price of jet fuel translates into $175 million of added operational costs annually for U.S. airlines.

Further, while the Northwest has key opportunities to supply a wide range of aviation-fuel stocks, the supply of sustainable biomass feedstocks is limited, both in our region and globally. As demand for sustainable, alternative energy grows, we will be forced to make strategic choices about the best uses for the material.

In short, aviation needs safe, sustainable and low-carbon fuel resources to ensure continued regional economic growth and prosperity, as well as to support commercial aviation's broader aim of achieving carbon-neutral growth across the industry starting in 2020.

By creating a sustainable aviation fuels supply chain — growing, refining, transporting and using "green" jet fuel sourced from our Northwest assets — we'll also develop a new regional industry that creates jobs, facilitates a path toward energy independence, and establishes a blueprint for other regions in the United States to follow.

As a global center of aviation innovation, the Northwest is a logical place to launch a pioneering effort to produce sustainable, low-carbon resources to power the future of flight.

Developing a new fuels industry will require substantial public investment in technology and research as well as long-term policy support to foster business entrepreneurship, innovation and attract private financing. This effort will need a full deployment of scientific and technology research and development assets.

These efforts will also need to be coordinated to accelerate development of comprehensive supply chains. This translates into the need for widespread regional collaboration and a unified regional voice advocating for appropriate policies and public support.

But the payback will serve our generations to come. A new regional aviation biofuels industry will strengthen traditional economic sectors, create new companies and jobs, and help aviation continue to operate on an environmentally sound basis.

The time to start is now.

Bill Ayer, left, is chairman and chief executive officer of Alaska Airlines and Alaska Air Group. Jim Albaugh is executive vice president of Boeing and president and chief executive officer of Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

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