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The House Wants to Slow the Military’s Clean Energy March

The House Wants to Slow the Military’s Clean Energy March

National Defense Authorization Act Allows Dirty Fuel Use

Congress should remove the provision in the National Defense Authorization Act that would halt the military’s progress in developing advanced biofuels, writes Daniel J. Weiss.

Sunlight from a solar collector on the roof of Utah State University's  Energy Laboratory in Logan, Utah, is sent through fiber optics to  stimulate the growth of algae.  USU was among several  institutions to receive grant money in 2009 from the Department of Defense  to research ways to convert algae into biofuels for military jets. (AP/Colin Braley)
Sunlight from a solar collector on the roof of Utah State University's Energy Laboratory in Logan, Utah, is sent through fiber optics to stimulate the growth of algae. USU was among several institutions to receive grant money in 2009 from the Department of Defense to research ways to convert algae into biofuels for military jets. (AP/Colin Braley)

The Department of Defense is the largest energy consumer in the nation. It’s made significant efforts to wean the military services from their sole dependence on fossil fuels—particularly jet and diesel fuel made from oil—to power their planes, ships, and vehicles. Pollution from burning these fuels contributes to global warming, which, according to military leaders, is a “threat multiplier” for national security. Instead, the services are developing more efficient aviation, naval, and terrestrial heavy equipment, and various cleaner domestic advanced biofuels.*

Unfortunately the House Armed Service Committee’s National Defense Authorization Act, H.R. 1540, would reverse this progress. Section 844 of the bill would actually allow the military to use alternative fossil fuels that produce more pollution than conventional fuels. The additional pollution would exacerbate global warming, which in turn would make our nation less secure. The House plans to debate H.R. 1540 over the next several days. Congress must remove this provision to enhance national security.

U.S. military leaders agree that global warming threatens U.S. security

Carbon dioxide pollution from burning fossil fuels for transportation is a major source of global warming. Scientists predict that this warming will increase floods, droughts, crop failure, and other serious impacts. The retired generals and admirals on the Military Advisory Board of the Center for Naval Analysis determined four years ago that these effects will increase international instability. The MAB concluded: “Climate change acts as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world.”

Current U.S. military leaders agree that climate change poses a direct and growing threat to our national security. The Department of Defense’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review determined that climate change is an “accelerant of instability.” The QDR concluded that the military must “develop enterprise-wide climate change and energy strategies.”

Congress acted to reduce pollution from military fuels

Congress agreed to reduce pollution from transportation fuels in 2007 by directing federal purchasing power away from highly polluting alternative fuels that were dirtier than conventional fuels. President George W. Bush signed into law the Energy Independence and Security Act, or EISA, which includes a prohibition on federal agencies’ purchases of:

… an alternative or synthetic fuel, including a fuel produced from nonconventional petroleum sources … unless … the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production and combustion of the fuel supplied … be less than or equal to such emissions from the equivalent conventional fuel produced from conventional petroleum sources.

greenhouse gas pollution from jet fuels

This provision, Section 526 of EISA, forbids the military and other federal agencies from purchasing tar sands oil and “coal to liquids” that are dirtier than today’s fuels. (see chart) This spurred the military to research, develop, and deploy advanced biofuels that are cleaner than petroleum, made from biomass such as camelina and waste oils.

The military aims to reduce its pollution

The MAB supported pollution reduction steps in its 2009 report “Powering America’s Defense.” It concluded that “diversifying our energy sources and moving away from fossil fuels where possible is critical to our future energy security.”

Rear Adm. Philip Cullom, who leads the Navy’s Task Force on Energy, notes that reducing reliance on fossil fuels:

… strengthens national security. By having reliable and abundant alternate sources of energy, we will no longer be held hostage by any one source of energy, such as petroleum.

The Department of Defense adopted this approach. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus established five clean energy goals in October 2009. One critical goal is “by 2020, 50% of total DON [Department of the Navy] energy consumption will come from alternative sources.” This includes ensuring “that alternative fuels utilized have lower lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than conventional petroleum-based fuels.” This will require 8 million barrels of advanced biofuels per year.

The Navy is now working to make its goals a reality. Last year the Navy tested an F/A-18 fighter jet on a biofuels blend at supersonic speeds, and since then it has successfully tested helicopters and combat boats. The USS Makin Island also employs a hybrid electric drive that cuts fossil-fuel use. It will reduce the ship’s lifetime fuel costs by at least $250 million at today’s prices.

The Air Force consumes the most energy of any of the services, and uses more than 2 billion gallons of aviation fuel each year. It, too, has committed to increase its use of cleaner fuels so that by 2016 it would “acquire 50% of domestic aviation fuel requirements via an alternative fuel blend.” It is “testing and certifying alternative aviation fuels to help improve energy security posture by providing domestic alternatives to foreign oil.” The Air Force reports that it is “on track to certify fleet on synthetic fuel blend by early 2011.”

This is a significant change for the Air Force. Before the passage of EISA, it was very interested in getting long-term contracts to purchase jet fuel made from liquid coal, which is significantly dirtier than conventional fuel.

The Army uses less energy than the Navy or Air Force—only one-fifth of the energy consumed by the Department of Defense. It is focusing on using more fuel-efficient vehicles as well as exploring clean alternative fuels.

Military procurement of advanced biofuels can grow new industry

The military can test various advanced biofuels to determine the most effective blend before they are commercialized. And it can do this more easily than private businesses because it can afford to experiment without concern about a short-term profit. It can then purchase enough to create market certainty for producers, thereby encouraging the production of larger quantities that will bring down prices.

Secretary Mabus believes that the U.S. military should “take the lead” and that “the Navy can be a market” in biofuels use, which will help speed the development and commercialization of advanced biofuels for both military and civilian use.

The Army notes that a military investment in clean energy technologies “creates new products, new business opportunities for a ready market. … [it] reduces R&D cost and risk of entry for commercial businesses.” And early adoption of these technologies by the Defense Department provides certainty to investors that there will be a market for new products.

Earlier this year the Rand Corporation criticized the Defense Department’s efforts to develop and commercialize advanced biofuels for its vessels, aircraft, and vehicles. It argued that it was unrealistic to develop the quantity of advanced biofuels necessary for the military over the next decade. It recommended using liquid coal as an alternative fuel while ignoring the security impact of increasing global warming pollution. This study was criticized because it did not seek the views of the most senior Navy officials.

Rand’s prediction about market availability of biofuels did not "square with what we have encountered or heard from industry,” according to Tom Hicks, deputy assistant secretary of energy for the Navy. Hicks noted that:

We have been engaged with the biofuels industry. We know what they are capable of doing, and we are confident they will be able to deliver the fuels at the quantities and at the price point we need.

Rand also reached its conclusions by mischaracterizing the biofuels program as focused on low-sulfur fuels rather than on advanced biofuels.

National Defense Authorization Act would increase pollution by allowing dirtier fuel use

Despite the national security imperative to reduce carbon dioxide pollution from burning petroleum-based transportation fuels, the pending National Defense Authorization Act would actually increase the use of such fuels. H.R. 1540 would exempt the military from Section 526, which would allow the military to purchase jet and other fuels made from liquid coal and Canadian tar sands instead of driving innovation in advanced biofuels.

The Germans perfected the Fischer-Tropsch process to make liquid transportation fuels from coal during World War II. The lifecycle carbon dioxide pollution from liquid coal production is 118 percent greater than that of conventional gasoline. And even if carbon capture-and-storage technology is used to reduce CO2 pollution during liquid coal production—it currently isn’t—the combustion of liquid coal still produces nearly 4 percent more pollution than gasoline, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Oil from tar sands, found in abundance in Alberta, Canada, are a little cleaner than liquid coal. But they’re still dirtier than conventional gasoline. Global warming pollution from tar sands production can be three times more than the production of conventional oil. Tom Kenworthy, a CAP Senior Fellow, reported from Alberta that tar sands, or bitumen, are:

… a viscous form of petroleum mixed with sand, clay, and water—is not easy to access. Deposits … lie between 100 and 150 feet below the surface. The ore is traditionally extracted by removing the overburden and strip mining, and it then is loaded onto trucks, crushed, and mixed with water—it takes two to four barrels of water for every barrel of bitumen—to form a slurry. … it’s a messy, energy-intensive process.

The production of tar sands is very energy intensive in addition to generating significant amounts of pollution. A Natural Resources Defense Council analysis determined that “the tar sands industry consumes enough natural gas every day to heat roughly 4 million American homes.”

Some argue that the United States should ignore the added pollution and increase the use of Canadian tar sands oil because Canada is our closest ally. They say this makes tar sands more secure than oil from Persian Gulf or African nations.

The problem with this argument is that it ignores the imperative to reduce carbon dioxide pollution and global warming to enhance national security. John Podesta, CAP President and CEO, notes: “Oil sands can’t simply be as good as conventional oil. We need to reduce fossil fuel use and accelerate the transition to cleaner technologies, in the transportation sector and elsewhere.”

Congress should help the military develop advanced biofuels

Congress should speed the development and deployment of significantly cleaner domestic biofuels instead of spending tax dollars on dirtier fuels that accelerate global warming, which will foster unrest in nations impacted by global warming. One helpful step would be to lift the current five-year limit on federal purchase agreements for advanced biofuels and instead allow the military to sign long-term agreements. This would provide more certainty to manufacturers, making it much easier to secure financing for their production facilities.

Any changes to allow longer contracts should include the following criteria:

  • The longer contracts should only apply to the purchase of advanced biofuels as currently defined by the Clean Air Act.
  • Section 526 of EISA must remain intact. This means that fuels must have lower lifecycle pollution than conventional petroleum fuels.
  • A 10-year purchase contract is sufficient to provide certainty to investors. Longer contracts should be prohibited.

Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) has two pending amendments to H.R. 1540 to grant the Defense Department 20-year contract authority for the purchase of alternative fuels. This is twice as long as necessary to provide market certainty for advance biofuels manufacturers, but it provides the contract length sought by producers of coal-to-liquid fuels. The amendment is a companion to lifting the prohibition on military purchase of coal-to-liquid, tar sands, and other dirty fuels. The House should reject these amendments if they are offered.

The military should keep marching to cleaner fuels

The recent rise in extreme weather events is a frightening window into the future. It heightens the urgency to reduce global warming pollution. The military is contributing to this effort by developing cleaner, alternative fuels. This will enhance national security as well as grow companies that will produce these fuels. We must also set aside alternatives—like fuels from tar sands or liquid coal—that significantly increase pollution.

The House Armed Services Committee undermined national security by repealing Section 526 as part of its National Defense Authorization Act. It is incumbent upon Congress to restore this protection that reduces pollution while spurring the development of a domestic advanced biofuels industry for military and civilian use.

*All three services are increasing electricity efficiency and investing in renewable electricity, too. But the focus of this column is the military use of advanced biofuels instead of fossil-fuel-based liquids due to the provision in H.R. 1540.

Special thanks to Brian Siu at the Natural Resources Defense Council, and thanks to Kalen Pruss and the National Security Program at the Center for American Progress.

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Daniel J. Weiss

Senior Fellow