House Armed Services Committee Threatens Shut Down of Successful Biofuel Development

posted by Andrew Holland on May 15, 2012 at 11:58 am

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Wired’s Danger Room blog has an important story by Noah Shachtman, “Republicans Order Navy to Quit Buying Biofuels” about the Department of Defense’s biofuels program. As ASP has written about before, the Department of Defense has become a leader on developing alternative fuels because they see that dependence on oil is a threat to national security. The U.S. Navy in particular has been active in developing alternative fuels. This makes sense: since the beginning of the Republic, the Navy has been a leader in developing and embracing new transportation technologies. From sail to steam to oil to nuclear, the Navy has led the way in technology development. Today, they’re trying to do so again, by moving away from their dependence on oil.

The story reports that the Navy’s efforts has met resistance from Republican members of the Committee who, in their recently-passed 2013 Defense Authorization bill, prohibited the DoD from buying alternative fuels, unless the price falls below petroleum fuels.

I spent some time this morning looking through the House Armed Services Committee’s legislation (H.R.4130, the National Defense Authorization Act of FY13) to dive further into what Republicans are actually asking the Navy to do. Interestingly, the Committee’s report “Commends the Department of Defense for its emphasis on energy reductions, investments in renewable projects that result in long-term savings, and more efficient processes that reduce demand for fuel consumption.” The report goes on to that the committee is “concerned about fluctuating fuel prices, and the resulting shortfalls and impacts on the operation and maintenance accounts.”

We see, then, that the Armed Services Committee has correctly identified the variability of fuel prices as a major problem for the Department of Defense. I agree: ASP has identified oil dependence as a significant threat to national security for the precise reason that it places American consumers, including the Department of Defense, at the mercy of wild swings in prices. The Navy says that a $1 increase in the price of a barrel of oil costs it $31 million per year.

Unfortunately, the committee’s actions in this issue go directly in opposition to their stated concern about fuel price fluctuation. Section 314 of the bill prohibits “the production or purchase” of any alternative fuel if the cost exceeds “traditional fossil fuel.” We know that, as of now, the biofuels the Navy is buying are about four times as expensive as petroleum fuels. However, those prices are rapidly going down. In a March event “Biofuels for National Security” here at ASP, the Navy and Air Force said that they expect biofuels to be competitive at cost with petroleum-based fuels by the end of this decade, and faster if the industry receives government support.

We know that the way to mitigate fuel price fluctuations is to develop alternatives to petroleum-based fuels, not to shut-down efforts to develop those alternatives, as House bill would do. The Navy should invest in an alternative source of fuel – one that is being developed here at home by innovative American companies and that can be grown by American farmers. Developing these alternatives is the only way that the U.S. can get rid of our dependence on oil. Public-private partnerships between industry and the military have a long history here in the U.S. – including the development of the steel industry, the superconductor industry, and even – as shown in the Atlantic Magazine –aluminum forges.

The Navy should be allowed to continue this bipartisan tradition of public-private partnerships for national security. The Senate’s Authorization bill will be different; when the Authorization process is finally complete, the bill should follow the House’s stated concerns about oil price fluctuations, not its actions. It should not include a section gutting a successful example of a partnership that promotes next generation energy and national security.

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