Monday, August 06, 2012

Mabus Chokes Navy's Politically Toxic Biofuels

On 24 July 2012, the Pew Project on National Security, Energy, and Climate released a letter signed by some 400 veterans, including retired generals and admirals, as well as former Armed Services Committee chairmen Sen. John Warner and Rep. Ike Skelton, urging the president and Congress to support the Pentagon’s initiatives to deploy clean energy technology to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
Although many parts of the letter are flawed (on oil) it doesn’t say anything against the worries expressed by the Congress as was argued in many papers. (For instance, an article in The Guardian  argues that the letter urges “Congress to drop plans to bar the navy from research on biofuels, or from buying fuels which cost more than traditional diesel or jet fuel.” Similarly a Reuters article says U.S. biofuel advocates urge Congress to continue Pentagon funding. This is not true. I really wonder whether the reporters really read the letter!)
Yes, the Congress voiced concern about the price of biofuels not being competitive with conventional petroleum. As a result, Senate and House amendments to the Fiscal Year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act seeks to limit the DOD’s authority to purchase biofuels in large quantities for operational use until they become cost competitive with conventional oil. SO, it is not against R&D. This issue is still confused in media.[1]
 On the same day (24 July), Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, issued a letter to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus requesting a detailed report on the cost of the U.S. Navy’s “Green Fleet” demonstration and overall alternative energy program. On 2 August 2012 he sent a second letter to Sec. Mabus because Mabus’ answer to Inhofe was not satisfying.
Why? Because, Mabus always repeats himself. Check all his speeches you will understand what I mean. See for instance, Remarks by Ray Mabus Secretary of the Navy at the Global Conference on Oceans, Climate and Security: Making the Connections Boston, Mass. (22 May 2012).
Mabus (again) argues that “how we power our ships, our aircraft, our ground vehicles is a military vulnerability” but fails to underline the fact that powering the war machines by biofuels will not make them less vulnerable. On the contrary, lower energy density of biofuels will require frequent refueling which means higher vulnerability.
It is good to see that Mabus finally understood that “oil is a global commodity. It is traded very often on rumor and speculation.» But he still fails to understand that the price of biofuels will not be competitive with conventional petroleum in the foreseeable future.  He says: “In just the test amounts of biofuels we’ve bought, we’ve seen the price come down dramatically.” True, per gallon price declined in the past few years but still per gallon price of the last procurement was still 10 times more than conventional fuel.
According to a RAND Corporation report in June 2012, energy purchases made by the U.S. Department of Defense do not influence world oil prices, making cutting fuel use the only effective choice to reduce what the Pentagon spends on petroleum fuels. The report adds that biofuels are likely to remain far more expensive than conventional petroleum products absent a technological breakthrough. God knows if and when this technological breakthrough will take place. Until then the US military should better focus its attention on conservation and efficient use of conventional fuel.
Many people ask why the Congress pushes poor Secretary Mabus to the corner for advocating biofuels? Eric Beidel sums it well in his article appeared in National Defense Magazine: “Military leaders like to say that their aircraft, ships and personnel can’t tell the difference between petroleum and biofuel. But their budgets can.”
People criticize the Navy’s efforts not because it is buying biofuels that cost more but because paying much more for something that brings insignificant advantages is nonsense.
Friends of the Earth reported in July 2012 (White House pushes risky biofuels for military) that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack noted that in the past three years alone, USDA has spent over $1 billion trying to jump start the advanced biofuels industry. However, despite their funding, a federal mandate, and decades of additional government subsidies, not a single gallon of cellulosic biofuels has been commercialized or is ready for sale. In fact, the entire advanced biofuels industry has continuously under-produced for the last seven years. Moreover, a recent study commissioned by the Department of Defense actually notes that biofuels will offer the military almost no competitive advantage in spite of their exorbitant cost to taxpayers.
On top of their lack of return on investment, many advanced biofuels also pose serious risks to the environment. A recent National Academy of Sciences study has found that bringing many advanced biofuels to commercial scale could actually increase air pollution, drive soil erosion, degrade water sources, and damage biodiversity.
Mabus argues that [most of the time to promote biofuels] “We’re doing it all for one underlying reason. We’re doing it to be a better military. We’re doing it to be better war fighters. » I really don’t get it. Does using biofuels make ships and aircraft go faster and farther? Does it require less transport logistic? Does it save any lives? The answers to all those questions are: NO!
Oh yes, sometimes biofuels advocated also argue that biofuels create jobs. Well, I can show many reports claiming otherwise. For instance, House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans, in a June 2012 report states that “The European nations that once were ahead of the U.S. in adopting green jobs programs are now ahead of the U.S. in abandoning them. It is time for America to do the same.
It is strange that someone (guess who) who doesn’t know the difference between Avgas and jet fuel still staunchly insists that biofuels is the magic cure.
On 17 July 2012 the Wired article entitled  How the Navy’s Incompetence Sank the ‘Green Fleet’ ends with the following sentence: “the first voyage of the Great Green Fleet may well be the last”. He may be right. More importantly, toxic biofuels may cost Mabus his job. It is time for Congress to demand an audit for DOD’s biofuels activities with full cost details.
As Senator McCain rightly argues investment in biofuels represents a case of “misplaced priorities” for the DOD simply because it is not a core defense activity. Instead of biofuels the DOD could spend that money on more pressing issues, such as creating jobs and providing housing for veterans.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics unemployment for those veterans who served post-September 2001 was 12 percent in 2011, higher than general unemployment. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans  points out that “over 67,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. Nearly one-fifth of the homeless population are veterans.
You decide what is the most important. Spending tax-payer money for a possible creation of a biofuels industry in the very long run OR honoring and taking care of those who served their country today?

[1] To understand this issue better, see for instance an article appeared in Journal of Energy Security (Did the House bar the Dept. of Defense from purchasing biofuels? Not quite) for a quick read OR the June 2012 Congressional Research Service report (The Navy Biofuel Initiative Under the Defense Production Act) for a comprehensive overview.


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