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New airport would put Washington's climate goals out of reach, critics argue

caption: Three critics voice their concerns about building a new airport. Laura Gibbons, Maria Batayola, and Bryce Yadon
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Three critics voice their concerns about building a new airport. Laura Gibbons, Maria Batayola, and Bryce Yadon
KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

The Puget Sound region is growing, and air travel is growing with it. By the year 2050, the number of flights here could more than double.

Planners say Washington state needs a new airport two-thirds the size of Sea-Tac. A state appointed commission has been looking at where to put it, and will send their report to the state legislature by this weekend.

The prospective airport is already raising a lot of thorny questions.

Like: Should we build it at all?

We hear all the time that to reduce our carbon footprint, we have to fly less.

How can we do that, collectively, if we’re building a new airport?

The chair of the Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission, the body charged with recommending a new airport location, is David Fleckenstein. In a recent meeting, he said there are lots of new technologies on the horizon, and those will make air travel more sustainable.

“We absolutely should pursue the ‘airports to the future’ concept that utilizes things like sustainable aviation fuel, electric ground support equipment, EV and public transportation charging, the use of alternate propulsion systems such as electric and hydrogen, and more as it becomes available.”

caption: The Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission says passenger travel — and air cargo volumes — will double by 2050.
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1 of 2 The Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission says passenger travel — and air cargo volumes — will double by 2050.


limate advocates are skeptical of this “airport of the future” concept.

“Even if they make small gains from using alternative aviation fuels, or even if electric planes are able to do some short haul flights by then, it’s trivial compared to the amount of growth they’re projecting,” said Laura Gibbons of the environmental group 350 Seattle.

How does she know that these aren’t viable technologies that could reduce emissions from air travel to almost nothing? As an answer, she offers some quick math.

  • The goal of the aviation industry is to get to a point where the fuel used by planes is 10% biofuel, she said.
  • Biofuel emits just as much carbon, but 80% of its carbon comes from plants, which absorb carbon as they grow.
  • However, because biofuel is only a portion of the fuel used, planes would still be emitting 92% of their greenhouse gasses. And that’s at current flight volumes, which will be far greater in the future.

Furthermore, Gibbons said warming effects due to particles released by airplanes are three times worse than suggested by carbon dioxide emissions alone. This is due to a complicated phenomenon known as "radiative forcing" that occurs high in the atmosphere. Basically, in the upper atmosphere, everything from soot to sulfur to jet contrails bounce some of Earth's radiation back down to us.

caption: An image from a scientific paper on radiative forcing.
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here are other concerns raised by the question of where to put a new airport, too.

Like: What kind of health effects will a new airport have on people who live nearby?

Maria Batayola works on policy for El Centro de la Raza on Beacon Hill, under the flight path from Sea-Tac. She’s also on the Beacon Hill Council.

Batayola said the state needs to closely consider scientific studies that show children near airports have higher rates of hospitalization from asthma.

“We know that is what the existing airport has brought to bear,” she said. “And with the unconstrained demand, we’re afraid that that’s going to happen to another set of our fellow residents in Washington state.”

Right now, the commission is recommending three potential sites: Two in rural Pierce County, and one in rural Thurston County. Neither county wants the airport.

There aren’t a lot of people near those sites now, but after an airport gets built, there will be.


o is anybody on the commission listening to these concerns?

Bryce Yadon is. He’s a voting member on the commission. He’s also a lobbyist with Futurewise, a land use non-profit that often deals with climate change issues.

Yadon said we should be looking at alternatives to flight.

“You know, one of the things we didn’t look at in this coordinating commission is: What is the role of potential high-speed rail in anything under 600 miles?”

In other words, instead of flying to Portland, we should take a high speed train.

“The reduction in greenhouse gas emissions for high speed rail verses short haul flights is significant. And we weren’t able to look at that. I think there are a lot of big questions out there.”

Yadon said after state legislators read the report, it’ll be up to them to start thinking more holistically.

Legislators could start digging into some of these big questions in the spring of 2023.

Meanwhile, officials in both Pierce and Thurston counties have asked that the potential airport sites in their county be taken out of consideration (see reports by Axios Seattle and The Olympian). If that were done, then the commission would be left with no sites to recommend.

Correction: Maria Batayola no longer lives on Beacon Hill, though she remains an active part of the community there. The story has been corrected.

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