By Tina Casey
Tucked away in the House Armed Services Committee’s proposed Pentagon budget is a provision that could bring the U.S. military’s ambitious foray into biofuels to a screeching halt.
Earlier this week, the Republican-led committee voted to ban the Department of Defense from purchasing alternative fuels that cost more than “traditional” fossil fuels.
That would eliminate several emerging biofuels that have undergone successful testing by the Air Force and Navy over the past year on aircraft and ships.
The Army has also been developing alternative fuel technologies for ground vehicles, such as a high tech steam engine that can run on a variety of fuels, including biofuels.
The Air Force has been test-flying a 50-50 blend of camelina and jet fuel in public displays of its high-performance Thunderbirds demonstration team. Camelina is a weedy plant in the mustard family.
The Navy has been testing a variety of biofuels in ships and aircraft, including its own Blue Angels aerial demonstration team. Along with camelina, the Navy’s tests include algae and waste grease.
Just last month, the Army officially opened the Ground Vehicle Power and Energy Laboratory, a new research complex in Michigan for developing alternative fuels and new vehicle technologies. Public education and outreach for the new laboratory will be anchored by a traveling vehicle and fuel showcase called the “Green Warrior Convoy.”
A halt to DOD’s biofuel purchases would be a particular blow to the Navy, which has spent the entire year on an all-out effort to launch a Green Strike Group by mid-June, in time to participate in the multinational Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) maritime exercise.
Every member of the Green Strike Group, including both ships and aircraft, will be powered with the help of non-fossil fuels. Though the group is anchored by a nuclear-powered carrier, the intent is to showcase the effectiveness of biofuels.
The Strike Group is an intermediate step toward launching a full Great Green Fleet in 2014.
Beyond the immediate effect on military operations, the House action could also throw a wrench in a major Obama Administration biofuel initiative that was designed to provide a long term economic boost to struggling rural communities.
Launched last summer, the initiative pairs USDA with the Navy and the Department of Energy in a $510 million partnership with the private sector, to develop a biofuel supply chain including research and development, growing and harvesting biofuel crops, transportation, and refining.
The Navy’s role is to be the linchpin customer, to kickstart the emergence of a mass market for biofuel.
The loss of the Navy as a ready customer would affect biofuel crop growers in the “breadbasket” states of the Midwest as well as in Arizona and Texas, both of which have been racing to establish themselves as leaders in algae biofuel production.
A slowdown in the growth of the domestic biofuel industry will also cycle around to affect the military’s long term energy strategy. Though positioned partly as an economic development program for agricultural communities, a key goal of the rural biofuels initiative is to ensure that the domestic biofuel economy matures quickly to the point where it could supply a significant portion of the military’s liquid fuel requirements.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has made the point numerous times over the past year that the DOD is strategically and logistically handicapped by dependency on fossil fuels to an increasing degree, whether the source is foreign or domestic.
The lack of fuel diversification makes the military budget highly susceptible to price spikes in the global oil market, which would not be alleviated by an increase in domestic production.
The purchase of petroleum products from a relatively small number of countries overseas has also been an issue of grave concern for military strategists and policy makers, as eloquently expressed by Mabus at a speech to the Green Building Council last May:
For the military, it creates a strategic challenge because too much of our oil comes from either potentially or actually volatile places on Earth. We don’t have to do anymore than read the headlines about that. We would never allow the countries that we buy petroleum products from to build our ships or our aircraft or our ground vehicles. But we give them a say as to whether those ships sail or those airplanes fly or those ground vehicles operate. We give them a say because they provide fuel for it.
Of emerging long term concern is the Asia Pacific region, as military strategy has been gearing up in that direction while slowly winding down its entanglements with petroleum producers in the Middle East.
Earlier this spring, top Navy officials attended the Sustainable Maritime Fuels Forum in Australia, a key ally, and toured local biofuel facilities to underscore American support for the international biofuel market.
The Navy has also been working with the international community to develop standards for aviation biofuel. The U.S. algae biofuel company Origin Oil has partnered with the Department of Energy to develop fuels for this standard, which would enable the company to supply both the U.S. and NATO forces.
Origin Oil has already established international partnerships to build biorefineries around the world, focusing initially on the U.S. and Australia.
Against this backdrop, the Navy is still planning to send its Green Strike Group to RIMPAC. In an eerie bit of Hollywood timing, RIMPAC is also the setting for the new Hollywood blockbuster “Battleship,” which was filmed with the cooperation of the Navy during the same exercise two years ago. The movie features ample footage of a real strike group in action - fast forward two years, and that would be the Navy’s biofuel forces arrayed against the aliens.