September 16, 2022

President Joe Biden does not hide his intention to “end fossil fuel.”  He campaigned on it; his policies reflect it; and as soon as he took office, he began actively pursuing an end to fossil fuels by engaging federal agencies under the pretense of climate change as both a “national emergency” and “existential threat to human existence.”

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In doing so, the extreme rhetoric and politics accompanying today’s notion of “climate change” have drowned out public debate on the consequences, practicalities, and realities of pursuing such a drastic far reaching idea as “ending fossil fuels.”  Instead, Americans need to hear — and understand — how an “end to fossil fuels” would actually affect their lives.  This is especially the case if Americans want to keep flying.

And Americans love to fly; we are a nation of flyers.  In fact, U.S. airlines boarded some 674 million passengers in 2021 despite lingering COVID concerns and over 927 million in a more typical pre-pandemic 2019 to travel by air for work, business, necessity, pleasure, and a host of other reasons.

Pursuing an “end to fossil fuels” as national policy willfully ignores a practical and inescapable fact about air travel.  An electric airliner does not exist that can transport a couple hundred people rapidly over long distances, nor does one powered by wind, solar, batteries, or any other “renewable” method.  There are no feasible, practical options for aircraft engines that can or will replace the jet engines that power today’s airliners anytime soon.  Industry experts say it may be as late as 2040 — if then — before possible alternative power sources such as hydrogen or battery-electric engines are ready for widespread use.  The jet engines on today’s 25,000-plus global commercial aircraft fleet burn jet fuel — still in relatively large quantities — and that fuel must be nearly all fossil fuel for some time to come for even the most fuel efficient modern jet airliners.

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Given tacit acknowledgment of an enduring reliance on jet engines, at the center of aviation’s response to the pressures emanating from government, politicians, and the green movement over airline’s exhaust emissions is “sustainable aviation fuel” (SAF) — i.e., biofuels — made from plant materials (like Midwest corn to make ethanol) or biomass, formed from renewable sources such as used cooking oil, municipal waste, and wood residues.  Though cleaner burning, use of SAF is fraught with seemingly intractable challenges.  SAF fuels are scarce, cost multiples of four or more times as much as petroleum-based jet fuel, do not possess the “energy density” of conventional jet fuel thereby decreasing engine performance, and will likely consume more resources in agricultural production negating any possible benefits of reduced emissions.

The magnitude of the chasm between green demands for reduced fuel consumption and exhaust emissions over what is possible in the foreseeable future (let alone today) is that SAF presently accounts for less than 0.1% (one tenth of one percent) of today’s aviation fuel needs.  To wit, one large oil company’s goal is to produce two million tons of SAF by 2025, but that is a drop in the bucket compared to pre-pandemic worldwide jet fuel demand exceeding 330 million tons annually.  And flying less is not an option.  Global air traffic is predicted to continue to grow by 3 percent per year from now until 2050.

The irony is that airlines already well understand that it is in their own best interest to reduce fuel consumption (and thus exhaust emissions).  Quite simply, fuel is expensive to carry and burn.  Airlines make an exacting science of burning as little fuel as possible for each and every flight, from short “hops” to long trans-global routes, while continuing to pursue further improvements — all done without government interference.  Yet it is their business — and in the nation’s best interest — to accommodate all the passengers who need and want to travel by air by the most efficient and economical ways possible.

Even during the pandemic, the U.S. airline industry accounted for approximately five percent of annual U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) while powering some $1 trillion in economic activity and employing nearly 740,000 personnel.  The nation’s economy can ill afford for this level of economic activity to stay depressed, chaotic, or absent.  Air travel is but one very visible reminder of a key national industry requiring a robust supply of fossil fuels for years, if not decades, to come.

President Biden’s avowed intention to “end fossil fuel” is — puns intended — an economic crash waiting to happen, and not just for air travel.  For this nation and Americans to continue to derive the benefits of air travel, the president and his administration’s hostility toward the vital role fossil fuels will continue to play in this nation’s future must be permanently “grounded.”

Chris J. Krisinger (colonel, USAF ret.) served in policy advisory positions in the Pentagon and the State Department and was a National Defense Fellow at Harvard University.  As a pilot, he flew C-130 Hercules transport aircraft.  He has family members employed in the airline industry.