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
report criticizing how fast the Navy hopes to deploy the
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?