Congress Won't Let The Navy Purchase Biofuel For The Great Green FleetS

The U.S. Navy is gearing up to show off its Great Green Fleet at this summer's biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) fleet exercises. The collection of 48 ships and more than 200 aircraft will operate on 50/50 blends of conventional fossil fuel and various biofuels that have been under development.

The fuel for the exhibition is bought and paid for — the navy bought 450,000 gallons of biofuel for $12 million last November. But — and this isn't terribly surprising — the navy's biofuel project has become a political issue.

Several House Republicans are trying to shoot it down. To them, it costs more than conventional fuel, end of story. But the story doesn't end there. Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), who chairs a House Armed Services subcommittee, said that rather than spending defense dollars on developing alternative fuels production and developing its market capability, the navy should be focused on building more ships and planes — a task that has become more difficult amidst more complex technology and dwindling budgets. Forbes even told Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus at a hearing in February, "You're not the secretary of the energy. You're the secretary of the Navy."

But Mabus is sticking to his guns. Having promised to change 50 percent of the fleet's fuel consumption to cleaner alternative products by 2020, he supported his position with the claim that new ships and planes are only as good as the abundance of the fuel used to run them. He pointed out that many of the places the U.S. gets its fossil fuels are politically volatile, which can affect prices. The U.S. navy uses more diesel fuel than any other entity in the world. To put things into perspective, a $1 per barrel increase in the price of crude oil costs the navy $31 million. Mabus argued that having a domestic supply of plant and algae-based biofuel would be economically viable in the long run.

Discussions about energy sources are highly subjective, but in order for the price of something to come down, it must be produced in bulk. The relatively small 450,000-gallon biofuel order the navy bought in November was expensive, but there's a strong chance that the cost would come down if more is produced. Plus, a lot of innovations paid for by the military trickle down into the civilian market eventually. That's how we got canned food, automatic transmissions and a whole host of other useful goodies (although now that I think about it, I don't like eating canned food and prefer driving manual).

But the political forces guiding this debate are tangled around a theoretical battle between the old, entrenched way of doing things, and something new that hasn't yet been proven on the field of battle. It is important to note that Forbes and his fellow committee members exempted DoD from observing the part of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 which directs federal agencies to use alternative fuels that are cleaner than the conventional ones. With the exemption, the military would be more compelled to explore technologies that turn natural gas and coal into liquid fuel. They're cheap, but they're also dirty — producing that kind of alternative fuel spews a lot of carbon dioxide into the air. It's a last resort if ever there was one.

I guess your stance on that issue depends upon whether or not you believe in climate change. Mabus avoids the climate change issue altogether, focusing on the future cost saving potential of using alternative fuels. Committee decisions like the one set to scuttle Mabus' Great Green Fleet don't always stand the test of time. But even if it does and the navy isn't allowed to buy more biofuel, it will have a chance to show what it can do at RIMPAC this summer.