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Southwest Airlines and Biofuel


Robert Menard,  Certified Purchasing Professional, Certified Professional Purchasing Consultant, Certified Green Purchasing Professional, Certified Professional Purchasing Manager

Robert Menard
Certified Purchasing Professional,
Certified Professional Purchasing Consultant, Certified Green Purchasing Professional, Certified Professional Purchasing Manager

In a press release dated 24 September 2014, Southwest Airlines  based in Dallas, TX announced a purchase agreement with Red Rock Biofuels LLC based on Fort Collins, CO.  This is news but only for the two parties.  The concept of biofuels  used by large consuming transportation companies was born with the sustainability movement.  Nevertheless, it is a good idea.

In 2010 research for my book, Green Purchasing and Sustainability, I discovered many fossil fuel consuming giants in the transportation sector who were already engaged in biofuels.  Some of the notable ones (who proudly proclaim such sustainability measures on their websites) are BNSF Railways, Schneider National, American Airlines , Maersk, and Continental Airlines (since merged with United).  All are testing some form of biofuels made from biomass, algae, even jatropha, a tropical plant.


Biomass fuels derive from decomposing plant and animal matter such as dehydrated human sewerage solids and forestry debris.  Red Rock’s first plant will be located in forest rich southern Oregon near the Freemont National Forest and convert about 140,000 tons of feedstock to produce 12 million gallons of biofuels annually.   

In its press release, Red Rock claims that it will “will refine forest residues into high value, low carbon renewable jet, diesel and naphtha fuels.  Utilizing renewable forest residues as a feedstock will help improve ecosystem health and reduce the risk of destructive wildfires in our forests, and our renewable fuels will help our customers address their price volatility, energy security and climate change challenges.”   

This is lofty language to be certain but the underlying science is sound. The forestry biomass of bark, saw dust, wood chips, and forest residue indeed reduces wildfire risks and enhances the environment in other ways. 

So what is the problem? 

The purchase agreement will begin in 2016 when the Red Rock plant is slated to come online.  Moreover, only 3 million gallons per year of bio-jet fuel are involved, about 0.2% of Southwest’s annual fuel consumption.  No information is available on price, but biomass renewables are not subject to the volatile price swings of the petroleum market.  It seems safe to assume this token amount of biofuel is merely a test by Southwest.   Even so, 3 million displaced fossil fuels is a start.  If all these experiments prove positive, we have yet found another avenue to achieve energy independence.

Other factors 

The sulphur-free bio-jet fuel is blended with fossil based jet fuel (a substance similar to kerosene).  Curiously, Southwest has chosen the San Francisco Bay area for its test.  According to Bill Tiffany, Vice President of Supply Chain at Southwest Airlines, “Our commitment to sustainability and efficient operations led us on a search for a viable biofuel that uses a sustainable feedstock with a high rate of success,” 

RRB’s CEO, Terry Kulesa noted, “From the outset, we have sought to build the best possible team of project partners.  A conversation we started with Southwest on the premise of providing renewable jet fuel at cost parity with conventional jet fuel has evolved into a great partnership.  We’re happy to help Southwest diversify its fuel supply.” 

Southwest is a member of Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI), a government and industry coalition for the development of alternative jet fuel for commercial aviation.   

Alternative fuels 

The more alternative fuels competing for market share, the lower the price of energy and the better the effect on the environment.  This is the best of all possible outcomes.  I remember in the 1990;s, not so long ago, when those wanting to dispose of waste oil form #6 industrial to restaurant cooking oils had to pay for the privilege.  Now, the receive payment for their discarded waste.  

What a great change for the better.

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