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March 2, 2024
ExxonMobil Cans Algae
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In 2012 we were enamored by biofuels.  This was a time when Net Zero wasn’t yet a “thing”.   Here we are in early 2023 and reality has started to bite.  There isn’t enough biofuel to meet the airline industry’s demand.  There may never be, ever.

Who says? Exxon Mobil Corporation says.   In 2018 they were gung ho on algae. 

The energy industry’s walk-back from algal biofuels is becoming a well-trodden path.  A predictable reaction might be that it is only “Big Oil” that is walking away from algal biofuels.  The thing is Big Oil knows more about energy production than just about anyone.  These companies need to be seen as “doing something” about climate change.  So much of this was greenwashing.  As is much of the Net Zero chatter.  KLM was sued for its sustainability claims.  But that’s the problem – airlines, indeed the entire commercial aviation silo, have to be seen as “doing something”.  And much of the industry’s attempts are being called “greenwashing”.  A problem is that media-facing industry executives are pressured into making statements they know cannot be met

Exxon Mobil is now looking at carbon capture and hydrogen as biofuel feedstock.  But the truth is that crude oil is still the most efficient source of energy for combustion engines, including turbines.  Airlines use huge amounts of carbon-based fuels and will continue to do so.  There isn’t an alternative, yet. 

Last week’s hydrogen-powered flight is to be cheered.  As is Airbus’s development of hydrogen-powered aircraft.  Airbus is advancing its hydrogen strategy.  Boeing appears to be open to more ideas but has a well-developed strategy, too. Marc Allen Boeing’s chief strategy officer at NBAA-BACE 2002 said: “We have shifted our language from zero emissions to zero impact. Hydrogen might have a role, but that might be being used on the ground to produce SAF or perhaps for direct propulsion. But how can we be sure it’s truly green hydrogen and that the net result might not be worse in terms of emissions, not just CO2 but also contrails.”

In Europe, there is Platform on Sustainable Finance.  A product of this effort is a 675-page draft report on sustainability. See page 509 for aircraft manufacturing.  And see page 522 for passenger and freight transport.  The draft recommends aviation allows green investments to flow into “efficient” aircraft. Fossil fuel powered, of course. 

As you might imagine this idea has met with a greenwashing smear: “Investments in more efficient aircraft would happen with or without the taxonomy. Airlines constantly renew their fleets to save fuel costs. So the taxonomy would simply put a green label over aviation’s business as usual, and allow green investments to flow to a fossil fuel-dependent industry.  Aircraft manufacturers will be heavily impacted by the taxonomy criteria. Recent calculations by Transport & Environment (T&E) show that if this criteria is adopted, it could greenwash over 7,000 Airbus aircraft. This represents over 90% of Airbus’ future aircraft orders, despite them still running exclusively on fossil kerosene in the next decade.”  More here on this reaction.

Not to be outdone, the airline industry is accusing the EU of greenwashing. IATA Director General Willie Walsh criticized the European Union for its SAF policy and also accuses the EU of greenwashing for not meeting pro-environment talk with action, pointing to the failure to fully implement its Single European Sky initiative. 

The decision by Exxon Mobil to move away from algae is another step in the process of discovery and seeking solutions.  There will be more jockeying by energy companies and commercial aerospace find ways to reduce fuel burn and emissions.  As we go down this road expect a lot of hot air from industry executives.  They have to say something – just know that what we are being told mostly reflects wishes.

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Co-Founder AirInsight. My previous life includes stints at Shell South Africa, CIC Research, and PA Consulting. Got bitten by the aviation bug and ended up an Avgeek. Then the data bug got me, making me a curious Avgeek seeking data-driven logic. Also, I appreciate conversations with smart people from whom I learn so much. Summary: I am very fortunate to work with and converse with great people.

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