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Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who’s made climate change the centerpiece of his 2020 Democratic presidential run, said he would use the U.S. military’s vast purchasing power to promote clean energy.
Asked in an interview what the Inslee administration would do about global warming in the first 100 days, Inslee said he would make the Pentagon’s budget more eco-friendly, and argued that elements of that concept have already been shown to work.
"We have flown a Boeing 737 across the Atlantic Ocean on biofuels. We have flown F-18s," Inslee told Vox. "So we can use the procurement power of the United States military to drive some of this clean energy."
Inslee was right about biofuels having powered a supersonic jet. We also found that aircraft similar to the 737 completed transatlantic flights on blended fuel, though we didn’t find instances where 737s had done so.
Inslee is correct that the U.S. military has flown an F-18 on biofuel.
Navy aviators made history in 2010 by flying an F-18 Super Hornet on a 50-50 blend of conventional jet fuel and biofuel—the first time this was attempted in a supersonic jet, according to the Washington Examiner. The 45-minute test flight took place on Earth Day at a Maryland naval base, the Navy’s media wing reported.
The biofuel was derived from a plant called camelina, which is native to North America. Prior to the test flight, the Navy said, the Pentagon awarded a $2.7 million contract to a Montana-based renewable fuel company for 40,000 gallons of camelina-based fuel.
The environmentally-friendly moves were part of then-Navy Secretary Ray Mabus’s initiative— known as the Great Green Fleet—a $510 million, three-year program to explore cleaner energy options.
Under the program, the Navy certified warships and aircraft to operate on biofuels.
But according to Todd Harrison, the director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, naval systems do not routinely use biofuels due to their high cost. Harrison seemed skeptical that the military would embrace a dramatic shift to the alternative energy source.
"It is possible that if the Navy started making regular, large-scale purchases of biofuels for its systems that it could help jump start this industry and bring down the price for other consumers," Harrison added. "But that would be a significant investment on the part of the Navy for something that only tangentially benefits the military."
Mabus, for his part, told us he sees climate change and national security as inextricably linked. He argued that as one of the biggest energy consumers on the planet, the Defense Department’s role in combating climate change should not be overlooked.
Bottom line: Inslee is right that F-18s have flown on biofuels. But what to make of his claim about 737s?
Inslee didn’t specify who he claims flew a Boeing 737 across the Atlantic—and a Navy spokesman said that service branch had never flown this series aircraft on biofuels.
We reached out to Inslee’s campaign, and they pointed us to a Boeing press release that described the company’s development of a fuel that blended petroleum fuel and "bio-derived oils and waste animal fats."
The press release also mentions Boeing’s work with Virgin Atlantic on a 2008 bio-fueled test flight. But it doesn’t say anything about flying a 737 across the Atlantic Ocean on biofuels. (We reached out to Boeing directly but didn’t hear back.)
That said, we did find numerous examples of transatlantic flights powered by biofuels.
Boeing posted a clip on YouTube in 2011 of a 747-8 Freighter completing what the plane maker described as "the first-ever transatlantic biofuel flight with a commercial jetliner."
A Lufthansa 747 made the first biofuel-powered transatlantic commercial flight to the United States in 2012, and two years later Finnair used a cooking oil-based biofuel to fly an Airbus A330 from Helsinki to New York. In 2018, United Airlines celebrated the "longest transatlantic biofuel flight to date" when a 787 Dreamliner flew from San Francisco to Zurich.
Inslee said, "We have flown a Boeing 737 across the Atlantic Ocean on biofuels. We have flown F-18s."
The Navy made history in 2010 when it flew an F-18 supersonic jet on biofuels. We found numerous transatlantic flights that have been powered by biofuels, too. We weren’t able to find instances where Boeing 737s had done so, but those are similar to other aircraft we documented.
We rate this Mostly True.
Ezra Klein Show via Stitcher, "Why Gov. Jay Inslee is running for president on climate change," March 19, 2019
Washington Examiner, "The Pentagon is quietly moving forward on biofuel deals. Republicans want to stop it," March 13, 2018
U.S. Navy, "Navy Tests Biofuel-Powered 'Green Hornet,' " April 22, 2010
Boeing press release, "Boeing pilots the birth of biofuel for aviation's sustainable growth," Sept. 28, 2018
Boeing via YouTube, "On board the 747-8F's record-breaking biofuel flight," June 22, 2011
United Airlines via YouTube, "United – Eco-Skies – SFO-ZRH Longest Transatlantic Biofuel Flight," Oct. 29, 2018
Air Transport World, "Lufthansa 747 makes first transatlantic biofuel flight to US," Jan. 13, 2012
Email interview with Todd Harrison, the director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 19, 2019
Interview with former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, March 19, 2019
Interview with Lt. Cdr. Kevin Chambers, a Navy spokesman, March 20, 2019
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