Monday, November 01, 2010

Fueling the Future Force

The Center for a New American Security, Washington, D.C. think tank, published a report entitled "Fueling the Future Force" in September 2010. The report was authored by Christine Parthemore and Dr. John Nagl. The latter is the President of the CNAS and is a retired Lt. Colonel.

The CNAS report start with a recommendation that Department of Defense “must prepare now to transition smoothly to a future in which it does not depend on petroleum.” A good start which admits that this is no small task since petroleum accounts for three-quarters of DoD energy energy consumption and that many of today’s weapons and transportation systems are unlikely to change dramatically or be replaced for decades. But its reasoning is not convincing -“the petroleum needed to operate DOD assets may not remain affordable, or even reliably available, for the lifespans of these systems.”

In my opinion, DoD will never ever be short of petroleum even if it costs too high. And that CNAS argument “DOD cannot be assured of continued access to the energy it needs at costs it can afford to pay over the long term” is not justified simply because I cannot imagine a news headline saying “US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is stopped sine DoD cannot afford fuel costs.” Let be realistic. Money will always be there.

Then comes the second recommendation: “To ready America’s armed forces for tomorrow’s challenges, DOD should ensure that it can operate all of its systems on non-petroleum fuels by 2040.” Well, there is no way whatsoever that DoD can do that in 30 year time frame! Indeed, CNAS report admits that “transitioning away from petroleum dependence by 2040 will be enormously difficult” but switching from coal to petroleum to nuclear power in ships as a historical example is a misnomer. Navy can go all nuclear if it wishes to do so but the subject of CNAS report is DoD. And there real headaches are aircraft and on-road vehicles.

Anyway, how the DoD is assumed to run on non-petroleum based fuels by 2040? According to CNAS the development, testing and evaluation of renewable fuel would guarantee DOD’s ability to operate worldwide in the event of petroleum scarcity or unavailability. To me this argument is really farfetched!

Now let me focus on the arguments of CNAS. By using the reserve-to-production (R/P) ratio CNAS argues that “given projected supply and demand, we cannot assume that oil will remain affordable or that supplies will be available to the United States reliably three decades hence.” I would not argue that R/P ratio is completely useless but it is surely a misleading concept. In any case I agree with the remark of Mason Inman that emphasizing R/P ratio in the CNAS report shows the authors’ lack of understanding of oil supplies and depletion.

CNAS report is rightly critical of the so-called first-generation biofuels, created from food crops. But the second-generation alternative suggested is not as reliable as CNAS claims. As the 2007 Biofuel Watch report put is straight Second Generation Biofuels are An Unproven Future Technology with Unknown Risks.

CNAS claim “using distributed renewable energy at overseas and forward operating bases to displace petroleum in powering generators” is premature. Yes, growth in renewable energy supply availability in times outpaced expectations thanks to subsidies and government push through legal and regulatory changes and federal requirements. But this is valid for the US and some other developed countries. How many of the future conflict prone countries have any plan for biofuels? And how environmental friendly is transporting biofuel from the country it is produced to the country it is consumed: And how cost-competitive it is? Can or will DOD be able to procure biofuels in the countries it operates? How realistic is it, even in 3 decades in the Middle East?

Note that Congress mandated that federal agencies should not invest in fuel sources whose lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions higher than their current fuel sources. Congress should clearly indicate which fuels should be looked at and which to disregard.

CNAS report correctly underlines that improving energy efficiency must be part, not the goal, of its energy strategy. Gains in efficiency are necessary and important, but there is a danger that too heavy focus on energy efficiency will mask an increasing reliance on fuel that poses further risks to the Department of Defense. Efficiency should therefore be treated as a means and an operational enabler.
CNAS report recommends 12 guiding principles to develop a DoD energy strategy:

1. Set a common energy goal
2. Establish clear energy guidelines
3. Plan for an uncertain future
4. Demand for new fuels for old equipment
5. Continue to increase alternative fuel use at domestic installations
6. Invest for maximum impact
7. Save energy, keep the change
8. Understand that energy is not free
9. Promote s shared vision of DoD’s energy future
10. Engage allies in the energy transition
11. Streamline energy management
12. Plan for the worst

Although the text in each element should be shaped better and filled with more logical and realistic concepts, each title is important. It is pity that CNAS paper was filled with unnecessary things. A paper solely on these 12 elements would have been a very valuable work.

Any transition away from petroleum must take into account of financial, operational, technological and tactical and strategic gains. Any talk about moving beyond petroleum must put mission first. DoD does not have a luxury of sacrificing performance, resilience, agility and flexibility for the sake of going “green” energy security. The DoD runs on oil and will do so in the next 3 decades. Period.


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