This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.
A humble plant grown in ancient times for its oil is making a welcome comeback – as a source of jet fuel. And the Pacific Northwest is well poised to be a leader in this growing and important industry.
Camelina, a flowering plant related to mustard, is being tested as a biofuel for military and commercial aviation.
A 50-50 blend already has been used successfully by the Air Force’s Thunderbirds squadron. And Boeing’s 747-8 freighter that flew trans-Atlantic into the Paris Air Show last week used a mixture of 85 percent kerosene and 15 percent camelina oil to power its four new General Electric engines.
Camelina-based biofuel is exciting for a number of reasons. It produces about 80 percent less carbon emissions than conventional jet fuel. It can be grown with little water or nitrogen fertilizer. And it doesn’t displace food crops, as is the case with corn used to produce ethanol.
After the oil is extracted from the camelina seeds, the residual meal can be used as feed for livestock and poultry. (Bonus: Research shows that turkeys fed the camelina meal produce meat rich in omega-3 fatty acid.)
Most importantly, the growing biofuel industry would allow U.S. aviation to depend less on foreign oil. That is likely to be of increasing strategic importance as oil costs rise with demand in the developing world.
The one down side – at this point, at least – is cost. A gallon of biofuels is about 10 times more expensive than a gallon of conventional jet fuel. But that cost differential could start leveling off as biofuel becomes more available and world oil costs rise. In addition, the European Union plans to charge for emissions – one reason Boeing’s 747-8 got a lot of attention in Paris last week.
Boeing deserves credit for taking a leading role in biofuels, creating a Sustainable Aviation Fuels User Group (Alaska Airlines is a member) and studying how to set up a biofuels industry in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.
Giving farmers the opportunity to grow a low-impact alternative crop – one that can be cultivated in rotation with other crops – could be a real boon to agriculture in the Northwest. Because wood products residue also can be used in aviation biofuel production, companies like Weyerhaeuser could benefit. And jobs likely would be created in refining and transportation.
Growing a sustainable fuels industry based on an easily grown plant makes a lot of sense for a whole lot of reasons. This is one bandwagon worth jumping on.