Biofuel in the Skies: Airlines Go Green

Do your eyes glaze over when you hear lectures by celebrities about buying carbon offsets – then watch as they hop on their private jets with a clear conscience? Yes, it's nice to be rich – and have someone else do the dirty work for you.

But hang on a sec. Some of the airlines – the travel option of commoners like you and me – are getting their hands dirty. More and more of them are working to lower their collective carbon footprints – because it's good for them, good for the planet, and ultimately, may be good for passengers' wallets.

Specifically, airlines and others are working to change the face of fuel: less petroleum, more pond scum – literally, in the form of algae – to create biofuels. It's a modern-day saga with good old-fashioned overtones: Man is remaking his world, partly because he wants to, and partly because he has to.

It's not going to happen tomorrow – but chances are, you will see big changes on the fuel front in your lifetime.

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Man has been harnessing oil since early Biblical times, but the modern petroleum era in the United States probably began in 1859 when the first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania – then everything took off with the advent of the automobile.

Millions of cars later, we are dependent, mostly, on others for oil – oil that won't last forever (indeed, some have predicted U.S. oil could be used up in a matter of decades).

But above the din of quantity questions came the "quality" questions -- questions about burning oil and how it creates carbon dioxide emissions that can cripple the planet. Obviously, this is a huge concern in the United States, the world's biggest oil consumer. Seventy percent of our oil consumption goes for transportation, and not just cars -- in 2007 alone, U.S. airlines used 19.6 billion gallons of jet fuel (approximately 465 million barrels).

Meanwhile, amidst all the concern over emissions, it seemed that almost overnight, individuals and businesses were tagged with a scarlet letter called, the "carbon footprint." But the airlines have been working on this.

Actually, some airline people have been involved in biofuels since the 1970s, but now there's a real urgency and for the airlines, that urgency is obvious: lowering its collective carbon footprint is self-preservation. After all, the industry has just come off an insane cycle in which oil prices zoomed to unheard of heights, then just as quickly dropped to near 21st century lows – all in a single year. And most airlines, with the exception of Southwest (and its hedges), got stuck with huge bills at the height of the crisis.

Later, when other airlines joined in the hedging, prices took a dive well below the hedges. That's no way for any company to manage one of its biggest overhead items, but the airlines didn't have much choice.

The good news is, in a few months those hedges will begin to expire, and, because oil prices are still quite low, the airlines will be looking good again (for the moment, anyway). What's new is the carriers appear to be vowing never to get caught up in such a mess ever again – so they are not idle. Biofuel testing is stepping up.

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