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The Bio-Fuel Delusion

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Virgin Atlantic impresario Richard Branson took some bashing this week for what might fairly be called a dubious demonstration of the potential of bio-fuels for commercial aviation. Virgin Atlantic flew a 747 from London to Amsterdam partially powered by bio-fuel made of coconut and babassu oil. (Babassu is a type of palm—I had to Google it, too.) Ever the showman, Sir Richard drove the point home by gleefully sipping coconut milk through a straw.

I'd wager that no reasonable man (or woman) believes that planting and mowing hectares of palm trees will yield enough bio-fuel to make a measurable dent in the Jet A market. In fact, some environmentalists argue that given the energy, water and other resources necessary to grow and process the palms, the whole idea is a net negative on the greenhouse gas P and L. Predictably, some environmental groups labeled the demonstration a stunt and said what Virgin should really do is join the movement to limit airport expansion at Europe's biggest hubs, including Heathrow and Amsterdam.

Well, it was a stunt. But I'd argue that we ought to have more like it as we bump along toward some solution to the aviation fuel challenge that will be both economically sustainable and environmentally balanced. Palm oil might help a little, but artificially restricting demand by limiting airport growth has been, is and will always be a loser. And this may be why the outer fringe of the green movement seems so wacky to those of us living closer to the real world.

Although I'm skeptical of its ultimate value, Branson's bio-fuel initiative is at least an example of one company—one man, really—stepping up and acting on his own ideas. It also illuminates a growing PR problem the aviation industry will need to address: the role of airplanes in greenhouse gas emissions. Right now, the aviation industry is responsible for only about 3 percent of greenhouse gasses, but that number will rise rapidly as the industry expands, especially the airline and business aviation segments. Branson is at least attempting to do something about it.

Which is more than you can say for the light aircraft slice of the market. Our contribution to greenhouse gasses is so trivial as to be hardly worth considering, but as an industry, we'll have a growing PR problem as the greenhouse gas issue merits ever more popular press attention. It‘s analogous to the airport noise and land use issue. Why, argue the anti-airport Aunt Janes, should a few privileged fat cats who can afford airplanes make the rest of miserable with their din? It would be better to convert the airport into a park. And why, argue the radical global warming Cassandras, should some rich guy be allowed to spew more than his share of carbon into the atmosphere just because he can afford it? Let him take the airlines and not that often, either.

The GA industry hasn't addressed this challenge because it really hasn't come up in a meaningful way yet. It will. Although as an industry we don't talk about it much, there are a couple of trends that show the industry is inching toward wiser use of fuel. One is the growing LSA market. For recreational use—and we all agree that we're not going to get guilt-ridden about recreational flying—LSAs are a smarter way to get to the $100 hamburger. (It's still $100, but we burn fewer gallons.) Second, heavy fuel engines—diesels. Interestingly, the impetus for these is less efficiency and more the growing lack of 100LL on the world market, but the fact is, they are (marginally) more efficient.

Unless someone rewrites the laws of physics, as a means of getting from point A to B, an airplane will never be as green as a plug-in hybrid. But airplanes—especially owner flown airplanes—will always have a legitimate place in the transportation mix because they're capable of a certain kind of fast transportation that nothing else can match, least of all the airlines. As owners and pilots, we don't have to apologize for that. But as Richard Branson did this week, we may sometimes have to explain it by showing that we're paying attention to wiser use of finite resources.

Comments (52)

At the sport end of the GA market, the new LSA aircraft are radically improving the overall credentials of this sub-sector: quiter, safer, more economical to operate. Once you get out of this sub-sector however, the regulatory environment starts to limit how quickly you can bring new innovations to market, mainly because of the costs involved. With safety being the number one criteria in any form of air transport, there will always be a tendency towards evolution rather than revolution.

Posted by: Ian Walton | February 28, 2008 5:48 AM    Report this comment

AOPA, EAA and other GA groups need to take this issue seriously and formulate a strategy for survival. Conversion of the reciprocating engine fleet to diesel and auto gas may be the only way to avoid draconian laws which would directly limit GA flying (or tax GA at a much higher level than car owners would tolerate). To placate environmentalists (and perhaps the consciences of aircraft owners) the strategy must deal realistically with the carbon footprint of fuel use (not flying per se). Continuing to wish the problem would go away, and refusing to embrace it as being against the Republican inclinations of light aircraft owners is not going to work. Unless decisive action is taken to embrace the conservationists’ agenda, leisure flying will be an easy pawn for politicians to sacrifice over the next 20 years or so.

Posted by: Ceri Reid | February 28, 2008 8:12 AM    Report this comment

Many environmentalists attack aviation because it fits with the class-warfare rhetoric of those on the (mostly) left. The popular perception of GA is that it is primarily for the "wealthy playboy adrenaline junkie". People seem more likely to support draconian taxes and regulations on an activity if they think it will only hurt "the rich". We all know that the perception is not accurate, but it is there. One point that I often make in response to environmental concerns is that aviation has a lower infrastructure footprint than ground transportation. We need fuel and airports, but we don't require millions of miles of road. Even our navigation aids are moving from ground-based to satellite-based. It's true that 100LL is not the cleanest fuel out there, but our environmental impact is lower in other ways.

Posted by: Chris McLellan | February 28, 2008 11:50 AM    Report this comment

It is inherent to my job to study quite intensively the issue of decreasing the "carbon footprint" of GA. Light-aircraft engines, even 50-year old models, actually don't have bad fuel efficiencies at all. Their cruise settings are close to or at their SFC "sweetspots", which is precisely not the case of car engines (hence the trend towards downsizing automotive engines). There are other reasons but this is no technical paper. Can modern technology (and especially electronic ignition and injection) help? Yes, sure, by about 10%, not much more. Are turbodiesels more fuel efficient? Yes, by 10-25% as measured on a engine test bed. In a real aircraft, you have to factor in the additional drag induced by their much bigger size and weight. The real solution, the one with a potential for 30-50% efficiency improvement, is radically new airframe designs with very significantly lower empty weight and much better aerodynamics than today's average GA airplane. Such designs are on drawing boards (I mean CAD stations) and even in wind tunnels. They tend to avoid turbodiesels engines as their above-mentioned characteristics defeat the whole purpose. I can only laud the Paul and the previous participants to this forum for very pertinent analysis and comments. My closing word is: there is hope, some people do care and do work towards a more efficient GA, and some investors (not enough!) do back them up.

Posted by: Francois Badoux | February 28, 2008 12:17 PM    Report this comment

While it would be nice to short-circuit the green concerns by eliminating leaded avgas (it really is nasty stuff), doing so won't impact the carbon footprint by itself. It might tone down political rhetoric somewhat. On the other hand, the irony is that we week-end aviators are being forced into the best mode of carbon-footprint reduction (i.e., conservation) by the run-up in avgas prices that has reduced overall hours flown. It would be interesting to compare (in relative percentage terms) the market-force conservation effect on avgas consumption with the ridiculously meager goals recently enacted for increased conservation (mileage) that the auto industry has to meet over the next decade. Don't fly as much, save big bucks, reduce carbon foot-print by 50 to 100%. Win, win, right? Add user fees, new federal or state taxes, onerous homeland security regulations, over-bearing requirements for expensive new ADS-B or other equipment, step up airport closure rates and we might actually catch up to the European GA leadership example.

Posted by: David MacRae | February 28, 2008 12:50 PM    Report this comment

It is interesting to note that the newest expense to the ATC system goes to Houston Center for the Gulf of Mexico area. This benefit will almost exclusively benefit the oil industry. Strange! Our now in power elected officials found another way to coodle this spoiled child of the industrial elete. Let's burn ethenol!

Posted by: Jim Hankins | February 28, 2008 5:19 PM    Report this comment

What, you don't think that Exxon and the other oil companies aren't deeply invested in ethanol production too? Exxon and GM have been running a series of ads in the NYTimes on the op-ed page cloaking themselves in public spirited self-congratulatory blather about ethanol being in their future. The GM ads feature the biggest, baddest, gas-hog Chevy pickups that they make. A vehicle that perhaps is their most profitable. The more gas/ethanol it consumes, the more Exxon makes too. Ethanol as a fuel is one of those concepts that is literally too good to be true, but politically expedient. Critics are just beginning to do the math. That includes a realistic estimate of the net energy realised from production, the true CO2 footprint of production and consumption, as well as the collateral damage to world-wide economies from decreased food crop production and increased food prices all sacrificed to the betterment of the auto industry and our "right to drive" (or fly). Taken a look at the price of milk recently? Just the tip of the iceberg. Ethanol just does not have the energy content of gasoline. Out of a 100hp gas engine you will get about 75hp and have to accept shorter ranges and reduced payloads too. I don't pretend to have the answer, but as far as I can see there are no magic bullets.

Posted by: David MacRae | February 28, 2008 7:28 PM    Report this comment

Bravo. Paul and others here have astutely nailed exactly what our all-volunteer CAFE Foundation holds dearest. We host the $300,000 NASA Personal Air Vehicle PAV Challenge flight competition and its first-ever Green Prize for transportation (MPG), its Community Noise Prize and its Aviation Safety Prize (cafefoundation.org). The $50,000 Green Prize will preferentially reward flight on renewable fuels, hybrids and electricity more so than using 100LL. We believe that EAA and AOPA visionaries need to step up and support the Green, Safety and Noise Prizes as essential to their future, for we agree that recreational aviation/LSA face serious jeopardy from future policy-makers. We are convinced that LSAs can offer a clean, safe, quiet useful mode of travel.

Our Electric Aircraft Symposium on 4.26.08 in San Francisco will discuss 100 MPG bio-diesel hybrid electric aircraft, among other topics. That the maximum range of an electric-powered 747 would be about from Chicago to Oshkosh should be grabbing Branson's and other aerospace concerns attention. Electric PAVs, by contrast, could achieve 1000 mile range with today's technology and could recharge in 5 minutes.

The NASA PAV Challenge is no stunt. It is a flight competition that EAAers should be flocking to as a beacon of hope. The technologies to make PAV travel a reality have already been proven out at NASA. Check out the PAV library at http://cafefoundation.org/v2/pav_tech_lib.php

NASA has pointed the way for GA to re-invent itself. Paul and AvWeb are a great way to make it happen.

Posted by: Brien Seeley | February 28, 2008 7:43 PM    Report this comment

The whole "global warming" issue is based on class warfare. It is purely a means of increasing the power of government and promoting socialism.

Posted by: Mike Osborne | February 28, 2008 8:44 PM    Report this comment

Does not have a foot print? Look at the wasted and ruined land in Oklahoma and Texas and you will agree with me. Not to mention the POLITICAL Changes that have been made to dis-enable abd prevent recovery of these lands and lives that have been ruined that will never be recovered. Switch to ethenol while there is still a chance and KEEP BIG OIL OUT OF IT! You folks outside of thes areas do not really understand the damage that has been wrought in these states. It is an easy change but for the goverment regulations.

Posted by: Jim Hankins | February 28, 2008 9:28 PM    Report this comment

There is not enough biomass produced on this planet, even if converted 100% into liquid hydrocarbon fuel to equal the amount of liquid fuel consumed these days. Forget about the fact that humans and animals like to eat. I am 50 years old and sometime in my lifetime the world will run short of liquid fuel, at that time the personal use of automobiles and airplanes will be over! So, I plan on flying my plane as much as I can, while I still can. When the fuel crisis hits, my plane will be worthless because I will not be able to afford to fly it and nobody will want to buy it for the same reason. I will then put it up on a big pole in my yard and make a weather vane out of it. When the grand kids come over I’ll let them sit in the pilot’s seat and pretend to fly it as it spins in the wind.

Posted by: Richard Jones | February 28, 2008 11:44 PM    Report this comment

It always amazes me how easily folks buy into hoaxes such as global warming, carbon footprints, and other hysteria all to intimidate us into throwing cash at these loath able puppeteers. rajones believes that the world will run short of liquid fuels within his lifetime. There is enough fossil fuel on this side of the planet alone to last another couple of hundred years. We ought to resist and tar and feather the Al Gore's of this world but we are too gullible, too easily frightened into following a pied piper. Already the ice-packs in the Arctic have regained more than their earlier-believed losses. I am all for conservation, but for practical reasons, not to line the pockets of a bunch of lunatic bureaucrats who want nothing more than to control our thoughts and actions.

Posted by: Nico van Niekerk | March 3, 2008 7:51 AM    Report this comment

I agree with Paul -- Branson's efforts are certainly a stunt, but I believe he is also sincere. I think it's also a savvy tactic for a European airline, where the level of protest against aviation's environmental impact is much higher than here in the US. In the big picture, I think our small GA aircraft are pretty insignificant, and the airlines for the most part are not so bad either -- they are certainly motivated to save on fuel due to the cost, and if you count up the fuel per passenger per mile they are pretty efficient. But what I think is hardest to justify is the thousands of bizjets flying around, many of them with just one or two pax in the back, burning 300 gallons per hour to take a CEO to his weekend home or a golf tournament. This happens largely off the public's radar, but that's sure to change.

Posted by: mary again | March 4, 2008 6:42 AM    Report this comment

Recently an acquaintence described a study that he was participating in where air quality analysis on and around major airports was being assessed with fairly sophisticated instrumentation. The largest contributing factor to air pollution (a different, but related issue to the carbon-footprint issue) was aircraft idling due to delays in getting from the gates to the runway. This is an airline scheduling problem to a great extent. It would be interesting to know the average burn rate for a 7xx or Airbus while iding for takeoff. Multiply that by thousands of aircraft and then the CO2 footprint of the bizjets is less of an issue. Not that using a bizjet to get to a golf game isn't ridiculously extravagant. Hanging around airports like Teterboro or Morristown just leaves you shaking your head.

Posted by: David MacRae | March 4, 2008 7:06 AM    Report this comment

If they can afford those jets to fly to where ever they wish, without asking other tax payers to pay for it (a la healthcare, education and welfare) how come it's considered ridiculous? I celebrate their wealth which is a barometer of what is possible and, if so inclined (my choice), I can do that too. And so can you and every one else. But to work one's mind into a frenzy about the success of others is counter productive and becoming the very fodder upon which this entire hoax has been based. This CO2 footprint is another whip with which we are corralled into pens for financial castration. Look at the facts, folks, CO2 is necessary for plants to grow and ozone to be manufactured. Higher levels of CO2 in ancient times were synonymous with lower global temperatures. Not higher ones. Conserve, yes. Don't pollute, yes. But buying into carbon-offsets (what a hustle that is) and following these leeches into submission is just plain crazy.

Posted by: Nico van Niekerk | March 4, 2008 7:51 AM    Report this comment

Nicovan, nobody mentioned carbon offsets, which I agree is ineffective. Likewise, anyone's success is fine. But I agree with "Conserve, yes. Don't pollute, yes." The way to do that is to promote efficiency over waste. FYI, centurion65, Branson has also been experimenting with changing the way airplanes operate on the ground, to address that very issue. There are lots of ground vechiles as well on airports, and there have been some experiments with reducing their emissions also.

Posted by: mary again | March 4, 2008 11:52 AM    Report this comment

From the above-referenced cafefoundation.org site: "Another drawback of bio-fuels is that, because of limited excess farmland, bio-fuels are not capable of supplying a large percentage of fuel without displacing human food production. Thus, conventional feedstocks such as corn, soybeans, and rapeseed may limit the availability of bio-jet. For example, the use of a 15 percent bio-jet/85 percent Jet-A blend in the US domestic commercial aircraft fleet would require more than 2 billion gallons of bio-jet. The production of this amount of fuel would require 34 million acres of land, about the size of the state of Florida." Never mind addressing the needs of auto fuel, but who needs Florida anyway? :-)

The same article (authored by Boeing people et al) notes that algae sourced bio-fuels would only require the use of a cultivated wetland area of the size of the state of Maryland. The yields are said to be 10,000 gal of bio-diesel/year/acre. Hmm, at that rate I could convert a small backyard pond and replace 50% of my fuel needs and still fly 100 hours per year. Too bad there isn't a piston engine that can use it with JetA in the 300HP range.

Posted by: David MacRae | March 4, 2008 12:29 PM    Report this comment

I think the various issues with using corn-based biofuels have been hashed out for quite a while now, and that's why Branson is looking to other sources. I think he has been investigating the algae prospects too. If creative people keep looking, and the incentives are there, I think there are a lot of possibilities for the future.

Posted by: mary again | March 4, 2008 12:42 PM    Report this comment

The public has not been presented with credible estimates of the cost for adopting a carbon diet. It will be sizable and will cause a lot of disruption that may convince politicians to back off a bit.

I agree that algae, or perhaps a genetically engineered organism, will be sufficiently developed in a decade or two to start making a meaningful dent in our appetite for oil.

No matter what happens on the political front, I might be quite interested in converting my airplane from gas to ethanol provided the ethanol comes from some source other than food and is reasonably priced. It'll burn cleaner and cooler, which would be just fine.

Posted by: Jack Ellis | March 5, 2008 10:08 AM    Report this comment

reasonably priced? otherwise you will continue burning fossil fuels? I like it. It should be capitalistically acceptable.

Posted by: Nico van Niekerk | March 5, 2008 12:41 PM    Report this comment

Gee, I wonder which one of those "raving lunatic bureaucrats" is behind $5.25 per gallon 100LL? I'd really like his name. The truth is we've been spoiled on cheap petroleum. Whether "peak oil" happens in fifty years or five hundred, I think most folks (other than those raving lunatic types) will agree that it will come, since oil isn't being regenerated in the ground very quickly. The current price reflects a global market with many pressures on it and few relief valves. That situation will only get worse as more people want to live (and drive) like us in places like China and India. So if you want to keep flying (as I do) you'd best put your hands together and pray for a good, green alternative to 100LL. And make it snappy.

Posted by: Robin White | March 5, 2008 8:04 PM    Report this comment

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That is the essential problem that we face. We are dealing with a zero-sum game. We developed nations have been hogging all the resources for 100 years, and now those in the majority who want to become developed nations want to have their fair share of finite resources in order to increase their standard of living. We are in no position to say that they cannot raise their standard of living, so, absent some miraculous set of circumstances, the inevitable result will be a reduction in ours. In a perfect world (for the developing nations perspective at least) everybody will settle out to a common level, but that level will be lower for our descendents, even if we are talking about several generations from now. Any continuing disparity will depend on our ability to pay a premium for energy, food, clothing, etc. In my view, we won't be able to do that for very much longer. And as long as we elect governments that are willing to spend 3 Trillion dollars on useless wars, we won't have the resources to invent our way out of that quandry. (Just thought that I would mention that in passing.) Cessna's move to off-shore manufacturing of the lead-paint version of their warmed over 152 (the 162) shows that they recognize where the market is growing and where their relatively near-term profits will be sourced (until the design is ripped off). Every gallon of 100LL that those and others burn off-shore will raise the price for us. I predict that we are at most no more than 5 years from $10/gallon for avgas. Europe is almost there with excessive taxes on fuel.

Posted by: David MacRae | March 5, 2008 9:49 PM    Report this comment

That's true, but it is a crying shame, then, that we would leave a mass of fossil fuels in the ground while we could harvest that while we work towards alternative engergy. If left alone, oil companies would have had sufficient capacity to provide us with affordable energy, but idiots and idiot doctrines got involved and now we have to spend trillions on foreign oil. Perhaps funding the very terrorists that want to destroy us; which is why we fight these 'useless wars'. If they had not had the privilege of our oceans of cash flooding them, they would still be living in their sand boxes throwing camel-chips at us.

Posted by: Nico van Niekerk | March 5, 2008 11:19 PM    Report this comment

I think that we could justifiably say that we have beaten this to subject death while we await developments in alternatives to gasoline as a viable transportable fuel. Babbassu nuts just won't cut it.

Posted by: David MacRae | March 5, 2008 11:32 PM    Report this comment

General aviation as we know it is not going to survive avgas at its present or forecast prices. The objective evidence is the dramatic reduction in fuel purchased at FBOs, and commensurate reduction in flight hours. The anecdotal evidence is the “On the Beach” scenarios seen at local airports. A few days ago, on a beautiful CAVU day, I flew to N51 to pickup an IFR safety pilot. When he climbed aboard, he said, “I knew it was you approaching the field”. I asked if he was listening on his hand held, and he replied “you’re the only plane in the sky”.

Not coconut oil, not babassu oil, not diesel, not gin, vodka or Islay single malts will save the day for general aviation. The reason avgas costs what it does is because the United States has an environmental mindset that permits OPEC to successfully function as a monopoly. Bring enough oil into the market so that OPEC can no longer successfully function as a monopoly and prices will drastically tumble.

There is no shortage of oil, not now, not in the lifetime of anyone reading this post, see Nansen Saleri’s article in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120459389654809159.html?mod=opinion_main_commentaries. The only way so much oil could be available, yet prices be so high, is if supply is actively restrained by non-market forces. Those two forces are OPEC, and U.S. environmental interests.

Posted by: Frank Natoli | March 12, 2008 7:11 PM    Report this comment

The U.S. needs additional refineries. One of the reasons that the recent explosion at a U.S. refinery did not result in a sharp increase in refined product prices is because the U.S. has become dependent on imports of refined products, and those imports covered the temporary refinery loss. New refineries are not built in the U.S. because of the same environmental interests.

The U.S. should not be generating one watt of electricity using fossil fuels. The reason so much is generated by fossil fuels and so little by nuclear is because of the same environmental interests. Most people know that France generates 80% of its electricity via nuclear. Few people know that France has no nuclear waste problem, because it reprocesses spent fuel and only needs to store a very small amount of radioactive residue, all of which is contained in a single room in Le Havre, see http://www.hillsdale.edu/news/imprimis/archive/issue.asp?year=2008&month=02. But the U.S. has the Carter Administration and the same environmental interests to thank for a legal prohibition against reprocessing and a block on new nuclear plants.

Evidence is increasing that climate change, be it hotter or colder, is entirely a function of solar activity, not man-made changes in marginal atmospheric CO2. Given the manifest cyclical reduction in sunspot activity, we appear to be entering into a period of cooling, and nothing the Nobel Peace Prize winner can do can change that. Yet the environmental interests have convinced the electorate otherwise.

Posted by: Frank Natoli | March 12, 2008 7:12 PM    Report this comment

This is not the first time that political interests have held a knife to the throat of general aviation. In 1986, the Congress decided that lease backs could no longer deduct “passive” losses. Together with a refusal of the same Congress to rein in trial lawyers, a tsunami of used planes triggered a collapse of prices, caused Cessna to cease piston production, threw Piper into bankruptcy, and put Beech and Mooney on starvation diets. General aviation today is only a shadow of what it was previous to the 1986 apocalypse.

The present Congress is unwilling to fully exploit U.S. oil reserves wherever they are found. All three Presidential candidates are of a similar mindset. The next Congress is unlikely to “improve”. But none of this is inevitable. There is no mile wide meteor on a collision course with the third planet. Everything is entirely a function of educating the electorate and establishing the requisite political will. Otherwise, as Peachy Carnehan said to his good friend Daniel Dravot, “Danny, the jig is up”.

Posted by: Frank Natoli | March 12, 2008 7:13 PM    Report this comment

And environmentalists foolishly persist in their quest to cut America off at the knees. It's totally possible to scrub industrial exhaust gasses to prestine condition at a fraction of the cost we pay at the pump today. Most oil spills occur at the hand of tanker failures, which is the primary manner of transport of imported oil. Incidentally, the Exxon spill was cleaned up by the ocean - manmade efforts accounted for an insignificant part of the cleanup effort. Just as nature has done for millions of years rectifying itself when natural mega-disasters occur, it has gobbled up the pip that the Exxon spill was.

Posted by: Nico van Niekerk | March 12, 2008 7:36 PM    Report this comment

Whether you choose to believe the preponderance of the good scientific evidence for mankind's effect on the environment and the world's climate, or you simply wish to dismiss it in preference for the illusory comfort of the minority exculpatory evidence, bear the following in mind: The chief leader of the "it ain't so" camp has committed 3 TRILLION dollars of our hard-earned tax dollars on a useless crusade. That would have bought 30 BILLION barrels of oil at today's prices, or about 4 times that at the price that existed when the Iraq debacle started. Be reminded day by day using the gas pump as your dipstick to measure the depth of the resulting financial impact and your cost of paying for his folly. Be reminded again when the FED repeatedly prints money to bail out banks and other greedy cronies of our fearless leader while fueling recession and inflation. Think about the lost opportunity costs of the last 8 years of the current "leadership". And then finally think about it yet again when you will not able to give your worthless aircraft away in 5 years. It is hard not to envision a situation where only the mega-rich will fly anything more than ultra-lights & LSA's.

Posted by: David MacRae | March 12, 2008 9:40 PM    Report this comment

Well, there are always those head-in-the-sand folks who cannot see that the war in Iraq was not only necessary but vital. So, the $3 trillion spent on the 'useless crusade' might have bought a bunch of gas, wich would have been a huge cash-infusion for Osama, but perhaps a unified Afganistan, Iraq, and Iran (of that block only Iran remains today) would have killed more of us over here. No, regardless of centurion65's misconceptions about reality, our gasoline problem wasn't caused by a war or no war; it was caused by liberals who cannot believe we ought to be a sovereign nation. I hold every one who was directly or indirectly involved in prohibiting us from drilling for oil and refining it ourselves responsible for the lives lost and ruined as a result of the war on terror (without the money we flooded them with they wouldn't have had the courage to attack us) and the gas prices we have to pay. These gutless harlots are like pathogens, and cancer. Healthy tissue but just diametrically opposed to the purpose of the host. So, centurion65, even though your name suggests you are flying one of those fine Cessnas, your head is blocked to the truth. A good reality-sneeze might clear some of your intellectual sinuses.

Posted by: Nico van Niekerk | March 13, 2008 12:46 AM    Report this comment

The fact is that the world has a finite ability to produce oil. The oil companies of the world are spending more on exploration and developing new oil fields then ever before, yet production continues to decline. All the production regions in the world are in decline except the Middle East and Russia. The only way the oil companies can lower the price of oil is to put more on the market, and the U.S. oil companies don’t have any more to put on the market. For all practical purposes, the only ones who have the ability to put enough oil on the market to lower the price are the Saudi’s, and why should they? They are in the business of making money. They have always tried to regulate the price at a point so demand wouldn’t be destroyed. There is little evidence in my daily commute that demand has gone down and the numbers from the EIA (http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/oog/info/twip/twip.asp) confirm my observation. The price will continue to rise until people reduce their use of gasoline. It has been shown in Europe that the price people are willing to pay for a gallon of gas is somewhere north of $9.00.

Posted by: Richard Jones | March 13, 2008 7:37 AM    Report this comment

[part 1 of 2]

Centurion65 gratuitously asserts the "preponderance of the good scientific evidence for mankind's effect on the environment" and then appears to blame the forcible removal of Saddam Hussein for the run-up in the price of oil. Rajones asserts that the oil supply is finite, which in an absolute sense must be true, but fails to quantify the supply and thus fails to put the finite supply in perspective, which the Nansen Saleri article that I referenced does. Neither poster addresses my fundamental points which are that our beloved piston general aviation cannot survive present or forecast oil and avgas prices, that the OPEC monopoly is directly responsible for the prices, that Washington is indirectly responsible for empowering OPEC, and that only a substantial reduction in avgas prices can save piston general aviation.

Coincident with my original post, Robert Samuelson published an op-ed in the Washington Post, coming to the same conclusions about OPEC as this writer, see http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/11/AR2008031102461.html. If you read the article, especially his assertion that high gasoline taxes are "better" than high OPEC prices, you will probably conclude that he would be no help to piston general aviation. But his conclusions of how OPEC came to control the price of oil and refined products are the same as mine.

Posted by: Frank Natoli | March 13, 2008 10:41 AM    Report this comment

[part 2 of 2]

Also coincident with my original post was the news of plans to conduct large scale drilling off the Falklands, see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2008/03/09/wfalk109.xml. If you read the article, you will see that the mindset that blocks drilling in Alaska or Pacific or Florida or Atlantic coasts does not apply to the Falklands or apparently anywhere else in the world.

There was a radio report that Exxon has twenty-five international projects underway, not one of which is in the USA. That is not because there is no oil in the USA. That is because there is no will to exploit oil in the USA. And with that lack of will goes piston general aviation.

Posted by: Frank Natoli | March 13, 2008 10:41 AM    Report this comment

I can understand why folks are so mad. I get mad every time I fill my tanks with 100LL. And the quiet, deserted ramp is not reassuring, either. But I do know a few things about the oil business, having worked in it. Is there oil yet to be found? Yes. Surely. Is it enough to offset the rising demand for petroleum and put a lid on prices? Not remotely. And more, production costs (never mind the political stuff that gets people irate) will be far higher than the production costs of current supplies (except for the elephant fields owned, for the moment, by our good pals, the Saudis). It's not those foaming-mouthed environmentalists who are driving the price of oil. It's pure supply and demand. I doubt there will be any piston-powered general aviation unless an alternative fuel is developed. Period. You can rant and rave about who or what is at fault, but the production curve and the demand curve have intersected. End of story.

Posted by: Robin White | March 13, 2008 11:03 AM    Report this comment

RobinWhite1: thank you for concurring with "I doubt there will be any piston-powered general aviation unless an alternative fuel is developed". But as to your assertion "the production curve and the demand curve have intersected", see the Nansen Saleri article in the WSJ that I referenced in earlier post above, which quantifies and contradicts your assertion. As George Will once noted, "you are entitled to your opinion but not to your facts". World oil demand versus world oil proven reserves has not increased in any way proportionate to the price of crude or refined products. The price change is controlled entirely by the OPEC monopoly, indirectly empowered by Washington.

Posted by: Frank Natoli | March 13, 2008 11:35 AM    Report this comment

Well now, let's take a look at some of those "facts". The article, written by a Houston oil man (kind of like asking a realtor about housing futures, in my view), says there's plenty of oil to be recovered through tar and shale deposits. Yep. There's a bunch of heavy hydrocarbons all right. And all of it requires a lot more energy per barrel recovered to obtain than current supplies- even more than North Sea supplies. You think that's going to drive prices down, do you? And he asserts (not a fact, an assertion...it's a little bit different)that the Saudi's have plenty more to pump. The real fact is nobody knows what the Saudis have, not even the Saudis. Are their reserves bigger than we think, the same or less? Nobody, repeat, nobody knows. Will 3-D prospecting find more traps with oil in them? No doubt. But I'll tell you, Frank, you're like that poor guy who straps on a set of wooden wings and jumps off a cliff. He may think he's flying, but it ain't so. He's in freefall, and sooner or later he's going to realize his "flight" is not going to end too well. Flapping harder, or drilling more holes, will not repeal the law of gravity. Or supply and demand. Wishing won't change things. Working to develop a new fuel just might. Them's the facts.

Posted by: Robin White | March 13, 2008 11:56 AM    Report this comment

Washington blocking drilling in Alaska or coastal areas is real. "Working to develop a new fuel" [that is not carbon based and therefore does not offend the man-made global warming types] is not real. The entire fleet of piston general aviation aircraft is dependent on gasoline or something very, very similar to it. Any conclusion that requires the avoidance of carbon based fuels, which is the basis of opposition to drilling in Alaska and coastal areas, is a death sentence for piston general aviation. And a love for piston general aviation is, after all, what we all have in common, isn't it?

People can have an environment that is unaffected by man. Or people can have piston general aviation. But they cannot have both.

How did a "Houston oil man" become a pejorative? I, for one, would not prefer a Cleveland oil man, or a Boston oil man. Like Willie Sutton said, I rob banks because that's where the money is. You go to Houston for oil information because that's where the oil information is.

Posted by: Frank Natoli | March 13, 2008 12:09 PM    Report this comment

I disagree that piston general aviation and an environment unaffected by man are mutually exclusive. Man's part of nature and like any other part of nature, man will affect it. Moreover, man must think himself extremely arrogant if he believes that he can affect nature. Only this morning some study estimated that the California wild fires pumped some 38 million tons of toxic greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, approximating it to 7 million cars concentrated in Southern California. And where is the damage of the wildfires? Gone, processed by nature. Krakatoa dumped so much acid into the atmosphere that the sea-bed was altered forever and today its a prestine piece of the ocean. An unknown number of submarine fissures constantly pump billions of tons of toxic material into the ocean, and where's the damage? The sea eats it all up because it's part of the eco-system. CO2 is required for plants to produce oxygen, which we need. CO is required for ozone production (remember that hoax?) and if we believe the prophets of deceit, we should strive to eliminate our carbon footprint and then what? We ought to drill for our own oil and provide for our own needs. In CA nearly $1/ per gallon of gas goes to taxes and our roads are in a horrible situation. That's what's mutually exclusive: reason and politicians. We may never have gas below $1/gal again, but we can stop funding our enemies and have a true supply and demand economy for oil.

Posted by: Nico van Niekerk | March 13, 2008 1:21 PM    Report this comment

Nicovan: in perspective, you're correct. But the opposition to exploiting domestic oil reserves, in Alaska or in coastal areas, is based on the objective of zero effect, not small, not minimal, not statistically irrelevant. Had a friend whose kids went on a tour of the Grand Canyon. The group had to hump a couple of chemical toilets because the rules were that there'd be zero effect on the environment, no joke. Didn't matter that the human waste and paper were both bio-degradable.

The ANWR drilling was planned for an extremely small footprint, including the use of slanted drilling into oil caverns beyond the footprint. The existing pipeline has not unreasonably cramped the style of the existing wildlife. But to some people, that footprint will be there, no matter how small. And the pipeline will be there, no matter how minimal its effect on wildlife. And worst of all, somebody somewhere will burn that oil, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere, and they are convinced that the environment is severely damaged by that release, hence they elect people to stop the drilling, which they have done. Ditto for coastal drilling. Ditto for nuclear.

What is relevant to readers of AVweb is that this mindset is demonstrably killing piston general aviation, yet fellow pilots empower the government that is having the fatal effect.

Posted by: Frank Natoli | March 13, 2008 1:40 PM    Report this comment

I agree with your assessment. It points to the realities, whether they are hoaxes or not. May I just add: It is a very clever deception that if one does not agree with the hoax, one is for destruction of the environment. I am all for protection and preservation, but not as a tool to harvest cash or strike humans out of nature with guilt and taxes, which is the tool to harvest cash.

Thanks.

Posted by: Nico van Niekerk | March 13, 2008 2:28 PM    Report this comment

Wide ranging discussions, some of which deviate from PBs points.

As far as crude oil prices we have a pool of money in hedge funds which is large enough to meddle with the natural free market sources. That and the declining dollar are working against us.

The issues are complex, but it is criminal for us to not work on all aspects of the problem.

- We need to work on supply. The US is the third largest supplier of oil for our own use. Only Saudi Arabia and Canada supply more. We have resources in Alaska, the Pacific coast, Atlantic coast and the Gulf coast that should be exploited. It makes no sense for us to ignore these resources when the Chineese are drilling in the Gulf already. We also have the shale oil deposits which represent a Saudi Arabia size reservoir of future oil. It is time to quit whining and get started on increasing the supply where we can. All of this can be done with due respect to the environment.

- We should also make a major move on eliminating the burning of fossil fuels for generating electricity. Build the wind farms off Nantucket and anywhere the winds make sense, develop new hydroelectric sources and build a network of new nuclear power plants. With a common template, construction costs will be less than before.

- Work on efficiency and commonality of liquid fuels. AvGas is a boutique fuel and plants do not want to produce it, or ship it due to lead content. Perhaps it is time to transition to autofuel based fuels and allow ourselves to enjoy some economies of scale. As I understand, there is one plant in the world making tetraethyl lead... a disaster in the making to have such a sole source.

America was built on the premise of freedom and ingenuity. Its time to use that ingenuity and move forward. We will never be the low cost producer of much of anything any more so the only thing we can do is to develop intellectual property. Lets do it.

Posted by: Ray Damijonaitis | March 13, 2008 8:57 PM    Report this comment

I have a different take on the Avgas supply. Yes it is a boutique fuel. No refiner has ever gotten rich making the stuff, but it is steady business. The up side is that no matter how thin the supplies of crude oil become, the amount diverted to Avgas production is inconsequential and will never affect the production of car gas, therefore as long as there is a demand for Avgas there will be a supply. As far as TEL is concerned, it is a simple molecule and fairly easy to make. If the current supplier stops producing it, someone in some third world country will build a plant to make it. The only reason there are not more suppliers, is that there is very little demand.

The bottom line is; the only thing that will make Avgas go away is us as pilots not buying the stuff. I always dreamed of having a big twin. Now I have the pleasure of paying the operating expenses without the hassle of maintaining two engines. (-:

Posted by: Richard Jones | March 13, 2008 9:26 PM    Report this comment

Energy prices occupy a rather unique position in the Washington political calculus. Although the present and forecast price of avgas is strangling piston general aviation, there are probably few members of Congress who have a specific axe to grind with piston general aviation (an exception may be my home state Senator Lautenberg, who voted with the majority of the Transportation Committee last year to impose NAS user fees on piston general aviation, despite me and many other New Jersey AOPA members virtually jamming his office lines asking him not to).

Almost every other cost-to-consumer issue can be presented as a rich/poor problem, with one solution being take from the rich and give to the poor. The cost of medical care and medical insurance lends itself very easily to such reasoning. Ditto for almost every other necessity of life except energy, be it gasoline, diesel, natural gas, propane, fuel oil or electricity. The reason energy costs cannot be “solved” by Robin Hood legislation is because the “solution” to the consumption “problem” requires a change in behavior by everyone, rich and poor. Since the vast majority of energy consumers are “poor”, at least by the standards of Washington rhetoric, it is necessary to make the consumption of energy by the “poor” hurt the “poor”, and any Robin Hood legislation that shifts energy costs to the “rich” fails to accomplish that. The fact that the cost of avgas is a collateral effect of national energy policy is for the most part an “unfortunate” coincidence for AVweb denizens.

Radio reports today promise $4/gallon autogas this summer, which of course means that last year’s avgas prices were a relative bargain. The question is, at what point will the number of people in the electorate who understand the above calculus reach critical mass?

Posted by: Frank Natoli | March 14, 2008 10:13 AM    Report this comment

Why are we still filling the U.S. strategic petroleum reserve? This amounts to a "price support" for the oil companies! Why did we not fill it when oil was $30/bbl? We all know the reason.

Posted by: Jim Hankins | March 16, 2008 8:12 PM    Report this comment

[part 1 of 2]

Why are we still filling the U.S. strategic petroleum reserve?

If in fact it is at this time being filled, it is because it is a strategic petroleum reserve and not a mechanism to manipulate or predict world oil prices. In the event that OPEC chooses to drastically reduce oil shipments, as OPEC member Venezuela has repeatedly promised to do, the strategic petroleum reserve would then and only then serve its strategic purpose. Thus the existence of the strategic petroleum reserve limits Venezuela’s and other like minded states’ ability to inflict immediate tactical damage on the U.S. economy. Since no one predicts any reversal in the price of oil, deferring additions to the strategic petroleum reserve would only make additions at a later date more costly.

This amounts to a "price support" for the oil companies!

Interesting that you wrote “oil companies” and not OPEC. A significant majority of U.S. oil consumption is imported. OPEC through its monopolistic behavior sets the price. Washington has indirectly empowered OPEC to operate as a successful monopoly, see posts above and link to Samuelson’s Washington Post article. So why “oil companies” and not OPEC?

Why did we not fill it when oil was $30/bbl?

Because the strategic petroleum reserve is not a mechanism to manipulate or predict world oil prices. Who could have predicted to everyone’s satisfaction that oil at $30 would go to $50 and then $100 and not $15? Had the strategic petroleum reserve been converted to a mechanism to manipulate or predict world oil prices, and unusually large purchases been made at $30, and oil then dropped to $15, doubtless someone would have written “this amounts to a price support for the oil companies!”

Posted by: Frank Natoli | March 17, 2008 8:41 AM    Report this comment

[part 2 of 2]

We all know the reason.

Not me. I hold commercial, instrument, CFI and CFII but not psychic rating.

Now a question for you: How would manipulating the strategic petroleum reserve and/or wreaking economic vengeance on oil companies provide a permanent solution to the avgas price death sentence that has been handed to piston general aviation?

Posted by: Frank Natoli | March 17, 2008 8:41 AM    Report this comment

The whole discussion is predicated on incorrect assumptions about the role of hydrocarbons in the environment and about economics. Global warming is a hoax. 100LL has no significant deleterious impact on the environment. Rather than taking the tendentious and false assertions of the environmentalist seriously, we need to educate the public why global warming is bogus. As for the economic argument, scarcity of commodities occurs only when government interferes with market forces. Were there no restrictions on energy exploration, we would not be paying what we do for oil. Were there no restrictions on petroleum refining, we would not pay what we do for gasoline and distillates. Diesel costs $4.20/gallon now because of the low sulfur diesel mandate. Does anyone perceive a change in air quality since we have started to use low-sulfur diesel? No, of course not, but we sure do perceive higher prices for groceries! Ethanol should have a place in our energy marketplace to the extent that its use is not subsidized. If it requires a subsidy and mandates to compete, it is by definition economically inefficient. The goal of environmentalists is not so much to preserve the environment as to impoverish us. They seem to believe that if we are poorer, the environment will be protected. This is of course incorrect; the environment grows cleaner as economies grow richer. The point is, the argument should not be conducted on the basis of the premises of the environmentalists because these premises are false and the argument on the basis of false premises will always go against our industry. We need to educate the public on what the correct premises are. It is disappointing in this forum to see so many in our industry accept, through ignorance, these false premises. You boys need to watch less television!

Posted by: Jonathan Fuller | March 22, 2008 10:37 AM    Report this comment

We need to educate the public on what the correct premises are.

Yes, but that assumes that education, good or bad, had anything to do with the public's perception in the first place.

Was at an engineering conference, and was addressed by a marketing guy. He said that most people he professionally dealt with made their decisions emotionally and then reverse engineered "objective" reasons. If he lost the sale, and tried to counter the "objective" reasons, his reward was hostility, because the "objective" reasons had nothing to do with the decision making in the first place.

So the moral of the story, for him, was that you had to win the emotional judgment at the first presentation. He with the best emotional pitch, wins. And mind you, this was for CEOs and CFOs and CTOs and the like, not Joe and Jane Sixpack watching Katie or Tom on the evening news.

So when it comes to the environment, the best emotional pitch naturally falls to the "save the planet types". Perhaps with $4 or $5 autogas, the emotional pitch pendulum will reverse.

Posted by: Frank Natoli | March 25, 2008 2:02 PM    Report this comment

There is reasonable evidence that the earth is warming and that fossil fuel burning is contributing to it. But, the real fallacy is that a warmer (and therefore wetter) world is a bad thing. Why is this a bad thing. Here, in the USA, huge portions of our population have been experiencing enormous increases in temperature for many years because they have been moving from places like North Dakota and Buffalo NY to places like Florida and Arizona because they WANT a warmer world.

Posted by: ARTHUR THOMPSON | March 25, 2008 3:40 PM    Report this comment

There is reasonable evidence that the earth is warming and that fossil fuel burning is contributing to it.

No, there isn't. There is increasing evidence that warming is not occurring. And there is no model that correlates man-made CO2 with observed temperature changes. For one, CO2 makes up a very small percentage of the very large atmosphere. For two, man-made CO2 is a minor component of the aggregate CO2. In order to achieve a doomsday scenario, models "need" to predict relatively large temperature changes for relatively infinitesimal changes in CO2. Those models do not correlate with actual observations. All indications are that solar activity overwhelmingly controls heating or cooling, and now that solar activity is reducing, a cooling stage is observed.

But your comments about the desirability of a warmer climate are well taken. There is an order of magnitude greater number of deaths from cold each year than from heat.

Posted by: Frank Natoli | March 25, 2008 6:37 PM    Report this comment

>>No model that correlates man-made CO2 with observed temperature changes<< I am somewhat of an agnostic on global warming and manmade CO2, but I have done enough research to see that your statement can be easily challenged. See http://www.realclimate.org/index.php?p=13 for some reasonable discussion.Here's another http://www.research.noaa.gov/spotlite/spot_gcc.html. There are many others on both sides of the issue.

The largest danger is group think. Many who rationally challenge global warming theory are shouted down as nuts or they simply don't make the argument. On the other hand, those who believe that climate forcing and and anthropogenic CO2 is a hoax tend to have thier minds made up, regardless of any science to the contrary.

Personally, despite claims to contrary, the science is far from settled, in my view.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 26, 2008 9:30 AM    Report this comment

The above NOAA reference analyzes surface ocean pH changes, not temperature changes.

There is significant literature that documents that CO2 [and CH4] concentrations historically lag temperature changes. See:

http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2006/11/20/21248/499 http://motls.blogspot.com/2006/07/carbon-dioxide-and-temperatures-ice.html http://motls.blogspot.com/2006/05/climate-sensitivity-and-editorial.html http://environment.newscientist.com/channel/earth/climate-change/dn11659

Google CO2, temperature and lag and sit back and enjoy the show.

I heartily concur with Paul's assertion that "the largest danger is group think". Key point is, one particular flavor of group think has for some time been in control of Washington energy policy, and directly causal of the cessation of new drilling in Alaska and Pacific, Atlantic and Florida coasts. The same group think is causal of the cessation of construction of new nuclear power plants. Had nuclear power not been halted by the same group think, none of the coal, natural gas and oil fired electric plants currently dumping CO2 into the atmosphere need exist. And the same group think has empowered OPEC to act as a monopoly and caused $3, soon $4 and likely $5/gallon autogas, and proportionately priced avgas, and proportionately priced home heating oil. These are not academic studies or predictions. These are real and painful events.

Posted by: Frank Natoli | March 26, 2008 4:48 PM    Report this comment

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