Coal Can't Win

By John Reed / February 6, 2009 at 5:00 AM

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently released the results of a Federal Aviation Administration-sponsored study looking into the feasibility of using alternative fuels for civil and military aviation and the results (no surprise here) weren't pretty.

The report -- eloquently titled "Life Cycle Assessment of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Alternative Jet Fuels" -- concluded that every single alternative jet fuel available for use in the next decade fails to meet federal greenhouse gas emission standards. The report has a particular impact on coal-base jet fuels which the Air Force had been pushing to adopt for stateside training missions by 2016. The service has been working to certify its aviation fleet to fly on the coal-to-liquids (CTL) fuel for several years now. However, the production process for these fuels emits far more greenhouse gases than standard aviation fuel.

Current law prohibits the service from buying any fuel that pollutes more than regular jet fuel. The study also claims that non-algae based biofuels such as those made from soy or palm oil would also pollute far more than current jet fuel.

However, Inside the Air Force recently reported that the service is moving to certify its fleet to fly on algae-based biofuels. This move came after Congress denied the service permission to sign long term contracts with CTL fuel makers -- something coal-based synthetic fuel makers say is necessary to offset the tremendous costs of building and operating CTL refineries.

The service dealt another blow to the CTL-fuel industry last month when it decided scrap its plan to build a CTL plant at Malmstom Air Force Base in Montana. If built, the plant would have produced 20,000 gallons of coal-based synthetic fuel per day and sold it to the Air Force at a discount.