Guest Column: Greens bash biofuels masking their real agenda

By Don C. Brunell

Recently, when a Virgin Atlantic 747 flew between London and Amsterdam using fuel derived from a mixture of Brazilian babassu nuts and coconuts, you’d think Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth leaders would line the runways waving signs of encouragement.

Instead, Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson, who said the flight marked a “vital breakthrough” for the entire airline industry, was blasted by environmental leaders saying his biofuels initiative is a mere gimmick.

To Branson, it is no gimmick. In 2006, he announced a $3 billion investment in research and development of renewable fuel sources.

Branson told the BBC, “This pioneering flight will enable those of us who are serious about reducing our carbon emissions to go on developing the fuels of the future.” But environmentalists claim biofuel cultivation is not sustainable and biofuels do little to reduce greenhouse gases — a view we are now beginning to hear from the green community.

What’s going on?

Greenpeace’s Dr. Doug Parr was candid about the real environmental agenda. He told the BBC, Instead of looking for a magic green bullet, Virgin should focus on the real solution to this problem and call for a halt to relentless airport expansion.”

“At the moment [aviation] is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gases in the UK, and we need to stop subsidizing the industry,” Friends of the Earth spokesman Kennett Richter added.

“If you look at the latest scientific research, it clearly shows biofuels do very little to reduce emissions,” Richter continued. “At the same time we are very concerned about the impact of the large-scale increase in biofuel production on the environment and food prices worldwide.”

(Ironically, environmental groups scoffed when those same observations were made by biofuel skeptics.)

Green Party former chemist Andrew Boswell said Branson is making a huge mistake backing biofuels because of the sheer quantity of the jet biofuels needed in years ahead. Boswell, who campaigns for the lobby group Biofuel Watch said it was unsustainable to try to replace transport’s share of fossil fuel consumption with biofuels — there is simply not enough arable land to grow fuel crops and food.

Boswell has a point if he is talking about extracting ethanol from corn or other crops which compete with food and livestock which are spiking your family’s food bill. But future biofuels are likely to come from algae which can be grown in production facilities requiring very little land.

Currently, biofuels are unreliable at freezing temperatures. Traditional jet fuel has a low freeze point, meaning it is suited to the very low temperatures encountered by high-flying aircraft. Branson believes the temperature problem and the biofuel supply issue can be resolved as he and airplane manufacturers continue their experimentation.

Despite the criticism, Boeing, Airbus and some airlines are pushing forward with their biofuels initiatives.

Virgin’s Boeing 747 had one of its four engines connected to an independent biofuel tank that it said could provide 20 percent of the engine’s power. The technology is still being developed by companies like GE and Boeing, but Branson believes airlines could routinely be flying on plant power within 10 years.

In early February, Airbus experimented with another alternative fuel ­— a synthetic mix of gas-to-liquid. Airbus ran its test using the world’s largest passenger jet, the A380. The three-hour flight from Filton near Bristol to Toulouse is part of an ongoing research program.

Air New Zealand says it plans to mount the first test flight of a biofuel-powered commercial airliner in the next year. The 747 flight is one part of a deal signed by the airline, engine producer Rolls-Royce, and Boeing to research “greener” flying. Like Virgin Atlantic, one of the four engines will run on a mixture of kerosene and a biofuel.

This scrap between Branson and Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and Europe’s Green Party finally unmasks the real motives of these prominent environment groups. It is not just about biofuels, it is about limiting future growth. They apparently want to turn back the clock rather than look ahead to solve problems for the next generations — our children and grandchildren.

Wouldn’t they be better served to work with Branson to come up with solutions rather than roadblocks?

• Don C. Brunell is the president of the Association of Washington Business.

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