An escalating climate crisis, advances in alternative fuel technologies, and a more favorable political environment have ushered in new initiatives to reduce and ultimately eliminate the use of carbon fuels to operate commercial aircraft. The ultimate goal is to develop sustainable aviation fuel and similar bio-fuel precursors of sufficient quantity.
In essence, it would be the “nautilization” of the airline industry. The Nautilus, a Captain Nemo’s submarine in Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” derived power source from seawater sodium. Similarly, the federal government is pursuing President Joe Biden’s zero-carbon goal for the aviation sector by 2050.
Unfortunately, the recently issued grand challenge road map—which touts goals of producing three billion gallons of SAF by 2030, and 35 billion gallons by 2050—will require substantially more horsepower in the form of government mandates and enforcement mechanisms.
Road Map Goals
The road map calls for the Departments of Energy, Transportation, and Agriculture, in collaboration with the Environmental Protection Agency, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the aviation sector. It encourages a “coordinated approach to federal actions” that will lower emissions and reduce barriers.
While the government’s intentions are commendable, the road map’s lack of specific commands makes the document more of a wish list than a blueprint for tangible results. It is merely a starting place for a long journey that will require significant congressional support and other enforcement mechanisms to fully realize its potential.
The road map’s three objectives are to expand SAF supply and use, reduce SAF cost, and enhance SAF sustainability. The road map is designed to enable agency coordination to “catalyze” technology innovation, create public-private partnerships, and address barriers to meeting the grand challenge. It lays out six action areas to accomplish the objectives.
First, expanding SAF supply and end-uses will require support for regional feedstock and fuel production development, workforce development, new infrastructure, and commercialization support through federal programs.
Next, reducing the cost of SAF will require lowering production costs across the supply chain, expanding the feedstock, and converting the technology portfolio.
Finally, maximizing the environmental co-benefits of production, reducing the carbon intensity of SAF supply chains, ensuring robust standards that guarantee high environmental integrity, and enabling approvals of higher blend levels will help enhance SAF sustainability.
No Mandates, Timetables
However, the road map does not impose specific deliverables or timelines for each agency’s contribution. Additionally, there are no mandates imposed on industry.
To the contrary, the road map concedes that “policy incentives,” legislation, and other actions may be needed to meet the goals.
For example, the road map recognizes that increased research and development is needed for the “development of collection and harvesting systems, including transportation, storage, and preprocessing to increase efficiencies and decrease cost and carbon intensity.” However, it doesn’t establish timetables for the government to ensure proper R&D is performed.
Similarly, the road map states that feasibility “studies will need to be conducted to identify sites to support SAF receipt, blending, storage, and delivery infrastructure to supply airports, both in the short and long term.” Yet there is no specified timetable or plan for how this will be achieved.
Additionally, while the road map claims that the Inflation Reduction Act “provides powerful first steps to incentivize companies across the aviation industry and the fuel supply chain to move aggressively to shift toward a low-carbon future,” those incentives—primarily tax credits—do not have the backing of legal regulation that requires certain milestones be met by a specified date.
Without teeth, the road map seems like a defanged tiger, destined to collect dust on a bookshelf rather than a recipe for realizing biofuel goals for the aviation sector.
Industry stakeholders with interest in realizing the goals of the road map should consider a legislative push to use as a vehicle, such as the 2023 Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act, to add some teeth to the platitudes in the road map.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
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Roy Goldberg, a partner at Stinson, is a business and regulatory litigator with a focus on aviation and international trade, including antidumping and countervailing duty cases. He represents airlines and other aviation industry participants in federal litigation.