A think-tank report blasts the U.S. Navy's plan to build a "green fleet", including recent trials of the algae-fueled Riverine Command Boat (RCB-X).  (Source:

The report fails to account for the cost to our nation's security of continuing to rely on unstable foreign oil sources (image: Iraq militants in the street).  (Source: Kaykaz Center)
Is the Navy's costly biofuels bid mission critical or a bridge to far?

The U.S. armed forces have long been interested in cutting their reliance on foreign oil and moving to alternative fuel source, such as homegrown biofuels.  The U.S. Navy revealed in October that it purchased 20,055 gallons of algae-based biofuel at a cost of $424/gallon to power its ships at sea.

Rand Corp., a leading U.S. think-tank, chimed in on the Navy's biofuels program this month, with its National Defense Research Institute arm releasing a report criticizing how fast the Navy hopes to deploy the technology.  

James Bartis, a senior policy researcher at Rand Corp, authored the report.  In it he writes, "The Department of Defense consumes more fuel than any other federal agency, but military fuel demand is only a very small fraction of civilian demand, and civilian demand is what drives competition, innovation, and production."

The federal government consumes 2 percent of the nation's total annual fuel budget.  Of that, the Defense Department consumes 80 percent.

The report targets many of the types of biofuels the Navy believes are the most promising, such as algae.  It states, "[Algae fuel is a] research topic and not an emerging option that the military can use to supply its operations."

The report also attacked the use of plant-based camelina oil.  That oil comes from Camelina sativa, a false flax plant, which produces oil seeds.  Advantages are that it is fast growing and can thrive on marginal land that couldn't be used for food crops.  The Navy successfully test-flew a F/A-18 fighter jet powered by the biofuel last month.  Still, the Rand report claims this effort to be useless and says that the Navy should stop pouring money into it.

Tom Hicks, deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy for energy, fired back with a conference call to reporters.  In it he labeled the report as "factually inaccurate" and "a misrepresentation" of the state of the biofuels industry.  He reiterated his belief (and the Navy's belief) that the biofuel industry would reach a mature state between 2012 and 2016.  Presumably with that mature state would come steady supplies and lower costs.

Mr. Hicks points out the armed forces are one of the biggest individual fuel consumers after the commercial airlines, and that airlines didn't have the resources or focus to push biofuels.  He states, "We feel that our approach to attractive energies - specifically biofuels - is the right one."

Mr. Hicks patently rejected that the think-tank paper would have an effect on the Navy's course.

He has the backing of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus who has stated that by 2016, the Navy will have set sail a "green fleet" powered solely on alternative fuels, and that by 2020 fifty percent of the Navy's fuel supply would come from biofuels.  Secretary Mabus emphasized in a blog post that a critical milestone occurred when recent tests showed biofuels performing on par with their fossil fuel equivalents.  He writes, "Just as importantly, neither of these fuels impacts food supply, the carbon footprint in terms of production is low, and the cost of each is rapidly falling."

One thing that the Navy doesn't explicitly say is that the biofuels program may have far less to do with being "green" than removing the security risk of depending on a source of fuel from unstable foreign nations like the Middle East or Venezuela, many of which have expressed hostility to the U.S. or are home to factions hostile to U.S. interests.  The Rand report almost entirely overlooked this factor.  After all, if the Air Force is willing to spend billions per stealth bomber, is $424 per gallon really that high a cost to secure the fuel supply of our nation's fleets?

"We basically took a look at this situation and said, this is bullshit." -- Newegg Chief Legal Officer Lee Cheng's take on patent troll Soverain

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