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Spending green dollars on a Great Green Fleet

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By Rolf Westgard

President Barack Obama’s administration and the Department of Defense are under the delusion that energy fuel supplies for our armed forces are subject to the whims of potentially hostile governments. Or as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy Tom Hicks put it, “We need to replace those barrels of oil from countries that don’t share the same values as the United States with ones that are grown either here domestically or ones that are grown in countries that do share our values.”

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The fact that the U.S. is now a net exporter of all refined petroleum products, including jet fuel and marine diesel, has not registered with the Navy or the administration. We now have ample domestic crude oil and refining capacity to supply our defense needs for the foreseeable future. Unimpressed, DOD is launching expensive new biofuel programs to insure fuel supply.  

Ethanol from corn is the only biofuel available in quantity and at prices comparable to petroleum-based fuels. But that ethanol’s low energy density and affinity for water make it unsuitable for military needs. The DOD plan is to use advanced biofuel from cellulosic material and algae, blending it with conventional petroleum-based fuel. In 2007, Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act. That act called for the production of 100 million gallons of cellulosic biofuel in 2010, rising in stages to 1 billion gallons in 2013. But there is no effective production process for cellulosic or algae biofuel, and the most we have produced in any year is about 5 million gallons at very high cost.

Undaunted, the Obama administration has awarded $510 million for the construction of cellulosic and algae biofuel production plants. Using an as yet mythical production process, these new plants are to supply biofuels to the Navy for a plan known as the Great Green Fleet. A demonstration of the concept is planned for this July off the Hawaii coast, using a carrier strike force. F/A-18 jets will launch from the carrier, powered by new blended biofuels. A destroyer and a cruiser will join the carrier on a voyage across the Pacific, using fuel made from fats and greases. The carrier will be powered by its nuclear engines.  To support the test, the Navy has agreed to buy 450,000 gallons of new biofuels at $26 per gallon, 6 to 8 times the price of the JP-5 and JP-8 jet fuels normally used by the navy and air force. If the July test is successful, it is supposed to lead to widespread deployment of Great Green Fleets by 2016.

The cost and experimental nature of this program has not escaped the Congress. Representative Mike Conway, R-Texas, has introduced an amendment to the new DOD appropriations bill which bars the military from buying any fuel at a price higher than standard petroleum based fuels. “DOD should not be in the business of driving fuel markets and fuel innovations,” he said, “The defense department is supposed to defend the country and get the best bang it can for the money it is spending.”

 Navy Secretary Ray Mabius defends the purchase saying, “We are doing this for national security and energy security. We are doing this to be better fighters.” The Secretary offered no evidence of improved weapons performance from these biofuels.

 There is an entirely new reality with U.S. energy production and consumption. New oil and gas supply is emerging, and fossil fuel demand is being reduced by conservation and renewable energies. Oil imports are declining to the point that all our needs may soon be coming from friendly Western Hemisphere sources. As Daniel Yergin noted last week in The New York Times, “What is striking is this great revival in oil and gas production in the United States, with wide impacts on jobs, economic development and the competitiveness of American industry. 

This new reality requires a new way of thinking about America’s improving energy position and how to facilitate this growth in an environmentally sound way.”

Let’s hope the administration and the Department of Defense get the message.

(ROLF WESTGARD is a professional member of the Geological Society of America and the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. He teaches classes on energy subjects for the University of Minnesota Lifelong Learning program.)

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