An F/A-18 from the Blue Angels demonstration squadron is fueled with a biofuel blend. Photo: U.S. Navy
The Navy’s ambitious renewable energy plans aren’t sunk quite yet. But they took a major hit Thursday, when the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to all-but-ban the military from buying alternative fuels.
The House Armed Services Committee passed a similar measure earlier this month. But the House is controlled by Republicans, who are generally skeptical of alternative energy efforts. Democrats are in charge of the Senate Armed Services Committee. And if anything, the Senate’s alt-fuel prohibition goes even further than the House’s. If it becomes law, if would not only sink the Navy’s attempt to sail a “Great Green Fleet,” powered largely by biofuels. It would also sabotage a half-billion dollar program to shore up a tottering biofuels industry.
Like their counterparts in the House, senators prohibited the Pentagon from buying renewable fuels that are more expensive than traditional ones — a standard that biofuels many never meet. In this amendment to the Pentagon budget, the committee additionally blocked the Defense Department from helping build biofuel refineries unless “specifically authorized by law” – just as the Navy was ready to pour $170 million into an effort with the Departments of Energy and Agriculture to do precisely that.
The measures were pushed by Sen. James Inhofe, one of the Republican’s fiercest critics of renewable energy efforts, and by Sen. John McCain, who has in recent years turned away from long-held eco-friendly positions.
“Adopting a ‘green agenda’ for national defense of course is a terrible misplacement of priorities,” McCain told National Journal Daily on Tuesday, calling it “a clear indication that the president doesn’t understand national security.”
This was supposed to be a moment of triumph for Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who has pledged to get half of the service’s energy from sources other than oil by 2020. Late next month, the Great Green Fleet was supposed to go on its inaugural, two-day demonstration voyage, with the destroyers plowing through the Pacific and F/A-18 jets will screaming into the air, thanks to a 50/50 mixture of bio- and fossil fuel. A full mission was planned for 2016.
“The Great Green Fleet doesn’t have an environmental agenda. It’s about maintaining America’s military and economic leadership across the globe in the 21st century,” Mabus told a Senate hearing in March, noting that every time the price of oil goes up by a dollar per barrel, it costs the Navy $31 million.”When anyone says we can’t afford to invest in developing alternative sources of energy, my reply is, ‘We can’t afford not to.’ We can’t afford to wait until price shocks or supply shocks leave us no alternative.”
In the short term, though, biofuels were going to cost significantly more than petroleum. After all, the biofuel industry is tiny, compared to the massive, century-old oil business. The science behind biofuels is relatively new. The Navy is still buying cupfuls off the stuff, compared to tanker-loads of oil it gets every day. In December, the Navy spent $12 million for 450,000 gallons of biofuel for the Green Fleet — paying about four times its price for fossil fuel.
Opponents pounced, calling it a waste of money in a time of relative austerity. ”Wouldn’t you agree that the thing they’d be more concerned about is having more ships, more planes, more prepositioned stocks?” Rep. Randy Forbes asked during a February hearing with Mabus. They found justification in some of the Navy’s own studies, which openly questioned whether biofuels would ever be as cheap as oil products.
Then came the House vote. And now, the Senate.
“It is a disappointment that a slim majority of the Senate Armed Services Committee has chosen to restrict efforts by the Department of Defense to reduce dependence on foreign oil. Today’s vote will hurt the DoD’s efforts to protect its budget from oil price shocks, diversify its energy mix and ensure security of supply,” Phyllis Cuttino, director of the Pew Project on National Security, Energy and Climate, said in a statement. “This is a step backwards.”