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The first commercial jet to fly on biofuel before takeoff today in Houston.Photo courtesy of United Airlines

First Commercial U.S. Biofuel Flight Takes Off

Biofuel saw another first on Monday as United Airlines made the first passenger jet flight in the United States using a blend of petroleum and fuel made from algal oil. But how does the airline industry feel about getting a government push to go green?

Amid plenty of celebration over biofuel demonstrations – which have been seen in China and on a flight from New Jersey to Paris, among many others – it remains to be seen whether it will become an integral part of aviation. And while all of those demos are taking place, United is among the many large carriers from dozens of countries around the world locked in a battle with the European Union over greenhouse gas emissions regulations.

Legislation passed by the EU three years ago states that any airline using an airport within a nation that’s part of the EU would have to have a certain number of pollution permits under the union’s cap and trade system as of this coming January. United is a member – along with most major U.S. airlines – of the Air Transport Association of America, which has launched a legal challenge against the EU emissions scheme.

The ATA argues that a “one-size-fits-all” cap and trade system is not suited to aviation, and that EU program could cost the U.S. airline industry more than $3 billion through 2020.The airlines’ position received important backing when the U.S. House of Representatives last month passed a bill that would bar U.S. airlines from complying with the EU law. And last week, the United Nations body responsible for civil aviation also weighed in against the EU scheme.

But the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions standards is really the only regulation in place that would push airlines toward breaking the petroleum habit and springing for biofuel.

“Europe is delivering on its commitment to reduce emissions,” EU Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard said in a statement. “Our legislation clearly says that if a country outside the EU takes ‘equivalent measures’ to reduce aviation emissions, all incoming flights from that country can be exempted from the EU system. We really look forward to plans from other states to reduce aviation emissions.”

For today’s flight of United’s Boeing 737-800, the airline used a 40-60 blend of petroleum-based jet fuel and biofuel made from algal oil from Solazyme. The algae was refined into biofuel using technology from Honeywell’s UOP subsidiary.

The Honeywell biofuel process converted natural oils and wastes into Green Jet Fuel, and didn’t require changes to the aircraft’s engine, according to a statement from the company. The Green Jet Fuel used in the flight can create up to an 85 percent net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to petroleum-based jet fuel, Honeywell said.

“United is taking a significant step forward to advance the use of environmentally responsible and cost-efficient alternative fuels,” said Pete McDonald, United’s executive vice president and chief operations officer, in a statement. “Sustainable biofuels, produced on a large scale at an economically viable price, can one day play a meaningful role in powering everyone’s trip on an airline.”

United also said it signed a letter of intent with Solazyme to negotiate the purchase of 20 million gallons of green jet fuel per year, for delivery as early as 2014.

Meanwhile, Alaska Airlines announced it will be taking off right on United’s tail, as it plans it plans to fly 75 commercial passenger flights using biofuel on Wednesday, reported Business Green.

“What we need is an adequate, affordable and sustainable supply,” said Alaska Air Group’s chairman and chief executive Bill Ayer in a statement. “To the biofuels industry, we say: If you build it, we will buy it.”

Several companies are trying to secure funding to make biofuel at the scale and cost that airlines will need, reports Biofuel Digest.

But meanwhile, the legal battle on how far climate policy can go to force biofuel use by airlines continues. A non-binding opinion last month by an adviser to the EU court handling the lawsuit by U.S. carriers said the cap-and-trade emissions program was compatible with international law. An official judgement is expected soon. Some observers worry the dispute could escalate into a trade war.