Pitkin Commissioners consider sustainable aviation fuel and its future at the airport 
August 16, 2023
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  • From the Airport Layout Plan to the Fixed Base Operator contract, the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport is in the midst of major decisions that will bolster or hinder staff, government, and community goals to prioritize “green” practices.   

    Sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF, is one path toward emissions-reduction goals. County commissioners expressed support for pursuing statewide or regional partnerships to create market demand for SAF after a work session presentation from an industry professional on the infrastructure and viability of the emerging technology.  

    Jennifer Holmgren is the CEO of LanzaTech, a publicly-traded biotech company that specializes in carbon-recycling technology – including developing SAF from waste carbon like municipal landfill waste, agriculture waste, etc. Their first SAF refining plant just opened outside of Savannah, Georgia.  

    “SAF made from renewable biomass and waste resources have the potential to deliver the performance of petroleum-based jet fuel but with a fraction of its carbon footprint, giving airlines solid footing for decoupling greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions from flight,” according to the Department of Energy.  

    LanzaTech was also an early winner of the Keeling Curve Prize, awarded by Aspen Airport Advisory Board chair’s Jacquelyn Francis’ non-profit, the Global Warming Mitigation Project.  

    “It’s about how do we get the incentives in place to build that capacity and get the technology down the cost curve, so that eventually it can stand on its own,” Holmgren told the commissioners.  

    Her company uses waste gasses and bacteria to create ethanol, and that ethanol is used to create a variety of products. SAF is one of those products.  

    Critics who accuse SAF as merely “greenwashing” miss the benefit of making use of all the waste that already exists above ground, Holgrem said.  

    “My feeling is that any carbon that has already been dug out of the ground, burying it back in the ground (just) incentivizes us to keep (digging) more carbon out of the ground,” she said. “And I’d rather use all that trash, even if the fuel makes CO2, at least I’m not taking fresh, fresh, new carbon out of the ground. And as we develop CO2 conversion technologies, we’ll handle that.” 

    She also talked about how the jet fuel refinery in Commerce City, Suncor, could be a potential location for a local SAF plant. Partnership with regional airports to demonstrate demand would be necessary, she stressed, and one day the High Rockies could be an appropriate location for a plant.  

    All the commissioners expressed eagerness in getting the county and the airport supporting SAF however they could. Holgrem said that the book and claims, or SAF “certificates,” would be the most immediate way to support SAF.  

    The Rocky Mountain Institute characterizes book and claim as turning the emissions benefits of using low-emissions fuels and materials into certificates that corporates can buy, transparently and credibly, and making sure low-emission fuel and materials producers can use these funds to invest and scale up. 

    Airport Director Dan Bartholemew said that ensuring infrastructure to support large-scale SAF use would need to be included in the Airport Layout Plan, a design document to be submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration that estimates the airport’s design specifications and traffic.  

    The airport is in the middle of preparing that plan for the FAA to outline new air and land-side renovations and secure hundreds of millions of dollars of FAA discretionary funding. The process has been met with much community input and some resistance as it grinds along.  

    The FBO and its role in supporting SAF 

    Like at most airports, the fixed-base operator is responsible for fueling all aircraft that come through Aspen. Here, that’s Atlantic Aviation. 

    Atlantic is in the middle of contract negotiations to continue as Aspen FBO for the next 30 years. They’ve run the FBO since 2006 and beat out a field of six other companies to enter negotiations with the airport sponsor, Pitkin County.  

    Because of the negotiations, Atlantic is limited in its ability to share details of its potential future relationship with the county. But General Manager Jonathan Jones said the Atlantic is already committed to promoting SAF in its operations.  

    They offer it to every aircraft that refuels at about a 30:70 blend — below the FAA’s maximum allowed ratio of 50:50 SAF to petroleum jet fuel, but 30:70 is the industry standard, he said.  

    The FBO dispenses about 8-9 million gallons of fuel annually, he estimated. The percentage of SAF in those millions of gallons was not immediately available.  

    “It’s important, even at the high cost, to create a market for SAF in Aspen,” he said. He noted that SAF is much more expensive than jet fuel for customers but is worth the costs Atlantic incurs to create more of SAF demand. He said when planes bring it to other airports and introduce it to others in the industry, that ostensibly creates more SAF consumers. 

    SAF available at the Aspen airport is sourced from Neste via Avfuel in California and trucked over — a practice frequently called out by critics as “undoing” the benefit of SAF. Jones said that Atlantic uses renewable diesel in its ground transport vehicles and also engages in the “book and claim” market.  

    Because the FBO is run by a private company, it is unclear how much authority the county would actually have to require short and long term SAF use at the airport. He said contract negotiations include SAF use.  

    The contract under which Atlantic now operates expires on Sept. 30.