Oil Slicks and Avgas
I've been watching the expanding oil spill mess in the Gulf of Mexico with increasing dread. I happen to live on the Gulf and that slick could find its way to our beaches here on the west coast of Florida. Alarmingly, there's no indication that BP or the army of experts they have summoned have yet figured out how to cap the well.
But my dread has less to do with fouled beaches and more to do with how things like this become politicized beyond all reason and thus distort any ability to construct an intelligent energy policy. I can't find the attribution, but I think it was James Schlesinger who commented that we don't have an energy policy in this country—we swing wildly from apathy to crisis. We're about to enter Choice B again. And you want wild? One Web site is reporting that the U.S. government is suppressing news coverage that North Korea torpedoed the rig. Sigh.
For the record, I am a proponent of expanded offshore drilling, although I despise the mindless "drill, baby, drill" chant, whoever invented it. I think I have realistic grasp of the environmental risks involved; I doubt the drill-baby crowd does, since I have yet to hear any drilling proponents argue coherently on how such risks should be mitigated. These people tend to talk in bullet points that are certified content free.
Unfortunately, aviation has a bigger dog in this fight than other industries because our fortunes are so directly tied to the price and availability of fuel. When fuel prices go up, we don't respond with more efficient engines, as the auto industry does, we just fly less. Or sell the airplane and take up surfing.
Events like the Gulf spill have a way of resetting the gross direction of things and that could happen with our mostly non-existent energy policy. One potentially positive development is a stronger tilt toward homegrown synthetic and bio-fuels. Frankly, I'm not a big believer in this because the economics look phony with oil at $75. But oil isn't going to stay there forever and at some point, the curves will merge and a bio-fuel like Swift Fuel suddenly becomes economically attractive.
Either way, it's not going to be cheap. At Sun 'n Fun, Swift's Charles Churchman gave a rundown of initial economics for this new fuel. Allowing for estimated yields and throughputs—still unknown—and the special difficulty of distribution, he estimated initial costs at $10 per gallon, until volumes are built. That might take as long as a decade. I'm not put off by those numbers because I think they finally bring some reality to the discussion and as Swift matures—if it does—it may find significant economies.
Again, these are 2010 estimates that can't account for future market prices for oil nor, more important, what kind of political windshift an major offshore disaster might cause. We don't yet know if we have one of those.
Meanwhile, down in Oklahoma, GAMI continues work on the petroleum-based G100UL. Although this fuel looks promising as a drop-in replacement for 100LL and could probably be refined within 90 days, the industry—chiefly the alphabets—have shown little interest in it. With a potential solution staring them in the face, none have embarked on a meaningful technical evaluation of their own, even though such a thing could be done by a first-year engineering student in a couple of weeks.
The FAA appears to be actively pushing back against G100UL given that it still hasn't agreed to consider an STC to test the fuel in a wider fleet trial, preferring instead the plodding, committee-driven ASTM process. Neither has it taken a technical interest, having yet to send a technical representative to smell test GAMI's claims.
On the other hand, Swift has entered into a fleet trial with Embry-Riddle, which is a positive development. Still, we know the fuel works—very few doubts there. What's really needed is to fast-track the economics so whichever of these fuels is practical can be tankered to an airport near you.
But it will be awhile. For I suspect what you're seeing is what we've been seeing for the past 25 years: The industry isn't serious about solving this problem, but is more concerned with turf protection and procedural chicken#$^2.
I'm left wondering if a runaway well out in the Gulf is going to have any impact on this. While I'm chewing on that, I'll have some more on G100UL later on.