The U.S. Navy has already spent $12 million on 450,000 gallons of biofuel for this summer's Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) fleet exercises. Its $27 per gallon cost caused a row among Republican lawmakers in Congress, who aimed numerous barbs at what they said was the Obama Administration's misplaced priorities.
But despite the ire the Pentagon's expensive R&D plans kicked up in Congress, top commanders have decided to forge ahead into the biofuels arena, with the government pledging $210 million to fund three biofuel refineries.
The navy — the world's largest consumer of diesel fuel — and the Department of Energy have pledged $170 million and $40 million, respectively, in matching funds so that three firms can build the refineries. The idea behind the project is to scale up biofuel production to the point where it won't cost $27 per gallon, but will be much cheaper. According to the Navy's plan, program participants will be on the hook to produce 10 million gallons of biofuel per year.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Ok.) has accused Navy Secretary Ray Mabus of "squandering dollars," and his supporters have brought the President's Solyndra debacle to light as an example of promoting alternative fuels expansion when the government can't afford it.
But Mabus expressed confidence that, cost aside, maintaining business as usual regarding foreign oil would be a huge national security risk. His reasoning: The navy (and the rest of the military and our civilian infrastructure, for that matter) needs oil to operate. If someone, somehow, manages to cut off the flow of oil to the U.S., the country effectively has no navy.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) called his GOP counterparts' reluctance to support the navy's above average fuel expenditure for RIMPAC "penny wise and pound foolish." Mabus said that foreign oil price volatility has a huge effect on the Pentagon's budget. A $1 per barrel increase in the price of oil can cost the navy, by itself, $30 million.
The navy plans to execute the project's $30 million first phase this fall, with five contractors getting awards to start work. The second phase, which will narrow the project down to the best three contractors, is scheduled to begin sometime next year. The Pentagon has already received $100 million in funding in the 2012 federal budget, and commanders expect to get another $110 million appropriation for 2013.
At this point in the game, it's anybody's guess whether or not Mabus' program will come to fruition. But if it does, biofuel, along with natural gas and other alternative fuels, could change the U.S. from the primarily gasoline and diesel-consuming country it is today. The navy is already testing fuels made from algae and other plant-based sources — mixed in a 50/50 blend with conventional fuels — in everything from river assault boats (like the one pictured above) to helicopters (also pictured). Military technology has a tendency to trickle down into the civilian sector, so we'll see what happens.
Photo credit: Associated Press