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EconomicsEnergyNewsStartupsTechnology

Former Navy secretary kicks off sustainable aviation fuels summit in Seattle

Arguing sustainable aviation fuel is the future, Ray Mabus, the former Secretary of the Navy in the Obama administration, called on businesses and public agencies to step up purchases of aviation biofuels and support high profile demonstration projects that accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels.

The U.S. Navy has always been a pioneer in energy innovation, said Mabus, who delivered the keynote speech this morning at the Washington Sustainable Aviation Fuels Summit in Seattle. “We went from sail to coal, from coal to oil, and pioneered the use of nuclear for propulsion. Every single time the Navy did those things there were naysayers. Every time the naysayers were wrong.”

Mabus, now the head of a firm that helps organizations build resilience and sustainability, described the Navy’s record of biofuels investment during his tenure and beyond: The agency undertook naval exercises using biofuels and supported demonstration projects to boost production of military grade biofuels.

These efforts were motivated by national security and concerns about climate change. Early on in his role as Secretary, Mabus said, he learned how fuel was a weapon. “You could use it offensively or it could be used against you. So as I started that job, one of the things I thought most about was energy.”

Mabus gave a shout out to the U.S. Marines’ pioneering efforts in the field. “When you think of the Marines, you don’t usually think of them as ardent environmentalists,” he said. “Marines like to blow things up. But they have embraced this because it saves lives and makes them better; the most lethal, most effective fighting force world has ever known.”

The Pacific Northwest has been a leader in the sustainable aviation fuel sector since 2011, when the region hosted Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest, said Port of Seattle Commissioner Fred Felleman during the summit.

The Port has set a goal of having at least 10 percent of the airport’s fuel come from sustainable sources by 2028. The agency’s 2019-2023 budget includes a $5 million line item to identify regionally sourced aviation fuels, Felleman said, and get them at a cost-competitive rate to the airport.

The Port has also made passage of a low carbon fuel standard in Washington state a priority. A bill modeled after similar legislation in Oregon and California  is currently making its way through the state legislature.

Mabus advised the Port to take a page from the U.S. Navy and host high- profile demonstration projects. “Next year at this time, for one day at SeaTac, every plane going in and out is going to fly on some mixture of sustainable fuel. It will get the attention of this country and get the attention of the world.”

Businesses have a role to play, said Mabus, noting that buying carbon offsets is good, but buying corporate aviation fuel is better. “The quantities are small, but the impact is outsize. When big companies that fly corporate aviation begin using sustainable fuels that notion spreads.”

People might be surprised to discover that the Pentagon’s two most recent purchases of biofuels occurred under the Trump Administration, whose members are known for their close ties to the fossil fuel industry. “The Navy and the Marines recognize pretty publicly that it makes them better war fighters,” Mabus said. “It gives them an edge.”

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Linda Baker, Staff Writer

Linda Baker is a FreightWaves staff reporter based in Portland, Oregon. Her beat includes early-stage VC, freight-tech, mobility and West Coast emissions regulations.
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