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Advancing renewable transport fuels

If there is one positive side-effect of the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic to remark on, then it would be its reduction effect on global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – simply a result of emitting sources, primarily from manufacturing industry and transportation, shutting down or scaling back. With lockdowns, travel restrictions, staycations, and work-from-home recommendations, demand for air travel, in particular, had all but evaporated during the first half of 2020.

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The impact of COVID-19 on global civil aviation and jet fuel consumption H1/2020 (graphic courtesy EIA).

According to figures from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), global commercial aviation flights averaged over 70 000 per day in January and February 2020 consuming an average of 4.3 million barrels per day (bd) of jet fuel. By end of April, at the height of the initial pandemic containment efforts, the average was 25 000 flights per day using 1 million bd.

Demand has since inched up to around 45 000 flights per day in July and 1.6 million bd fuel consumption. While other modes of transport have contracted too, it is aviation that has been the hardest hit – comparing aviation’s fuel demand in July this year with July 2019 shows a 69 percent drop.

Charts on global crude oil demand and prices for the same period are even more dramatic. From US$70.87/b for OPEC basket on January 6 to -US$37.63/b (!) for West Texas Intermediate (WTI) on April 20, the lowest negative crude oil price ever recorded. Weekly average prices have since stabilized for all three categories (OPEC, Brent & WTI) to around US$40/b.

The immediate ramifications for oil refiners coupled with the distillation curve challenge (i.e. refining one unit of crude oil results in a constantly given fraction of distillate groups) and the long-term outlook for crude oil have prompted some very recent and pretty significant shifts.

In the United States (US), Phillips 66 revealed plans to reconfigure its San Francisco Refinery in Rodeo, California (CA), to produce renewable fuels only. If fully implemented and combined with the existing renewable fuel project, the “Rodeo Renewed” would be able to produce over 800 million gallons (≈ 3.02 billion litres) annually of renewable diesel, renewable gasoline, and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), making it the world’s largest facility of its kind.

In France, Total plans to invest over EUR 500 million to repurpose its Grandpuits refinery in Seine-et-Marne into a zero-crude platform for the production of 340 000 tonnes per annum of renewable fuels and bioplastics by 2024. Crude oil refining at the refinery is to be discontinued in the first quarter of 2021 and the storage of petroleum products to end in late 2023.

In Finland, Neste is exploring the shutdown of its oil refinery operations in Naantali while transforming the Porvoo refinery operations to coprocessing renewable and circular raw materials. Sweden’s largest oil refiner and transportation fuels producer Preem has said that in the light of “new economic circumstances”, it will cancel its proposed Residue Oil Conversion Complex (ROCC) project at its Lysekil refinery and focus on ramping up renewable fuel production instead.

While the global COVID-19 induced GHG emissions lull is anticipated to be temporary until such that countries and economies get back on their feet, it presents an opportunity for a global green recovery by building back better as highlighted by numerous agencies such as the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the International Energy Agency (IEA).

In her state of the European Union address on September 16, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen revealed that the European Commission is proposing to amend the proposed EU Climate Law with an increase in the EU’s GHG 2030 emissions reduction target to at least 55 percent compared to 1990 levels as an interim goal to the 2050 climate neutrality goal.

The proposed plan, since presented by the Commission, also set out the legislative proposals to be presented by June 2021 to implement the new target. This includes revising and expanding the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS); adapting the Effort Sharing Regulation and the framework for land use emissions; reinforcing energy efficiency and renewable energy policies; and strengthening carbon dioxide (CO2) standards for road vehicles. The proposal has by and large been welcomed by different stakeholders and agencies as both economically feasible and beneficial for Europe.

However, the forest industry sector warns against using forests as a “golden egg” to compensate for decarbonization non-delivery in other sectors. As noted by the Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI), the European Green Deal is based on the idea that it needs to preserve the CO2 sequestration and sink ability of forests as well as biodiversity but still with the possibility of harvesting wood for economic uses. Europe’s forests can play a bigger role in enabling the Green Deal in many policy areas while at the same time increasing the annual carbon stock.

Modern bioenergy systems and sustainable biomass have a key role to play in the EU heat and cooling sector, a sector which according to Bioenergy Europe, accounts for 51 percent of final energy consumption in Europe and approximately 27 percent of EU carbon emissions. Although the new 2030 plan makes a clear link between the 2030 proposed target and the Circular Economy Action Plan, it misses taking into account the substitution effect thanks to forest-based products.

Against this background, it is very encouraging that the European Forest Strategy – The way forward report, just voted in the AGRI Committee, has received the backing of the entire European forest to industry value chain including the two sustainability certification brands FSC and PEFC.

Hopefully, the European Parliament (EP), where the report is currently at, will do the same.

This article was first published in Bioenergy International no. 4/2020 (112). Note that as a subscriber you get access to the e-magazine and articles like this before the print edition reaches your desk!

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