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By Andrew Holland on May 8, 2013 with 3 responses

Future of DoD’s Biofuels Program Should Not Be Sacrificed to Tight Budgets

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Biofuels Leader

The military has been a leader in the development of biofuels – for good reason. As I’ve written before, the military’s single-source dependence on petroleum for fuel is a strategic vulnerability. Oil has a monopoly on energy supply for 80% of our military’s energy needs, including virtually all of the non-nuclear transportation. To simply accept that oil is going to remain as the sole source of liquid fuel that the US military relies on for its transportation, operations, and training is to say that we should accept the long-term strategic risks of price volatility and dependence upon uncertain foreign countries.

We should remember that, even if the military uses oil solely from the United States and its allies, the price that the Defense Logistics Agency pays for oil is largely set by global market conditions – and saying that those are highly vulnerable to conflict and unrest in the Middle East is an understatement.

(Related: The Operational and Strategic Rationale Behind the U.S. Military’s Energy Efforts)

Last year, in an attempt to address this threat, the Department of Defense, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Energy were authorized under the Defense Production Act (DPA) to support the development of an alternative source of fuel. The funding agreed in a joint memorandum, and appropriated by Congress, each agency will invest $170 million over three years in helping to build a domestic biofuel industry (read more about the DoD’s biofuels policy here). This funding will be matched by investment from the private sector. Over the past several months, the agencies have been deliberating over which companies will partner with the government.

In many ways, the Navy has taken a lead on the transfer from oil to biofuels, as is appropriate for a branch that pioneered the move from sail to steam, coal to oil, and nuclear propulsion. In the summer of 2012, the high-profile test of the “Green Strike Group” – run on a 50/50 blend of biofuel – at the RIMPAC exercises off Hawaii were a clear sign of the importance that the Navy places on biofuels. However, the Air Force also has issued aggressive goals on biofuels: it claims that it will be able to use biofuels for 50% of its domestic fuel use by 2016.

On a political level, the DoD biofuel program has been under fire from (some) Capitol Hill Republicans for more than a year. However, a diverse coalition of supporters of biofuels, including farm-state Republicans like Nebraska’s Mike Johanns and Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, have beaten back the politically motivated attacks. The political heavy lifting of approving this program has already been done: the will of Congress is clearly that this program should go forward.

What About Sequestration?

Admittedly, the military is facing a tough budgetary environment, and across the board sequestration cuts mean that virtually every area of the military has been harmed. These cuts are already harming readiness, undermining the acquisition and training process, and are slashing much-needed research and development. However, even in the face of such cuts, an investment in deploying advanced biofuels is important. Even if the government could reprogram the funding intended for the biofuels DPA (something that is likely not allowed under current law), it is a mistake to slash investment in the future.

The question of how to fund investments in the next-generation is fundamental to building the fighting force of tomorrow. There is a natural tendency during downturns to cut investment – but it is precisely the opposite of what we should be doing. On a national scale, Dwight Eisenhower faced a deep recession in 1957-1958, with GDP falling by 7.1% in the fourth quarter of 1957, then falling by an astounding 10.4% in the first quarter of 1958. In precisely that time, however, President Eisenhower proposed, and Congress enacted, the National Defense Education Act which significantly increased federal support to education in science, math, and foreign languages. As detailed in August Cole’s post on ASP’s Flashpoint blog, the Soviet’s ‘Sputnik’ threat inspired massive R&D investments; the strategic threats of oil dependence should also inspire investment.

In contrast, today’s Congress is forcing the government, including the Department of Defense, to make harmful across-the-board cuts. The stupidity of Congress’ actions, however, should not excuse military and civilian leadership in the Department of Defense from making the important investments into the future; it is strategically important for the military to develop new sources of energy like biofuels. The military has long been a catalyst for technological advancement – and a successful biofuels industry will have impacts across society.

  1. By Ike_Kiefer on May 9, 2013 at 7:32 am

    American national security should not be sacrificed to biofuels.

    There is no improvement to national security by pouring more money from an insolvent government into a program that, when scientifically scrutinized, is revealed to actually use more fossil fuel to deliver the same amount of energy to society, to reduce economic competitiveness, and to have insurmountable limitations that make it unsuitable for domestic or military use at scale. Consider these.

    1. Biofuels cannot scale up to replace US transportation needs. The world’s most productive biofuel biomass are various intensively farmed food crops. At the best case of 500 gal/acre of ethanol for corn, it would take more than 700 million acres of the US to be cornfield (1/3 of the lower 48 states). Fuel from cellulosic crops would require 33%-100% more acreage.
    2. Biofuels have crippling fossil fuel dependence (ammonia fertilizer made from natural gas; herbicide and pesticide made from petroleum, farm equipment fuel, processing plant energy, hydrotreatment hydrogen, etc.). Investing petroleum energy in diesel or gasoline production yields 32 times more energy in new petroleum than investing it in corn ethanol, and far less in cellulosic or hydrotreated biofuels.
    3. Biomass yields fats and acids and alcohols which are unstable, corrosive, and have poor energy density. They can be used as dilutants in gasoline and diesel fuel in small amounts for furnaces and surface vehicle engines, but cannot be tolerated in the tiniest amounts in jet fuel or military battlefield fuel. Converting these chemical cocktails into true “drop-in” hydrocarbon fuels requires upgrading by “hydrotreating,” a prohibitively expensive process that results in $30-$60 a gallon fuel, requires larges amounts of hydrogen from natural gas, and releases 11 tons of CO2 per ton of hydrogen added.
    4. Biofuels are much harder on the environment than petroleum fuels as they require more than 300 times the land area per unit of power delivered, more than 300 times as much water per gallon of fuel, the application of millions of tons of agri-chemicals (made from petroleum feedstock diverted from fuel production), and the irreversible conversion of huge parcels of biodiverse habitat to artificial monocultures.
    5. Biofuels have higher lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels when properly accounting for the centuries of CO2 released by land use change destruction of forest carbon sinks into cropland and the much more potent nitrous oxide and methane released by intensive farming.
    6. Biofuels are a proven and growing threat to human rights and global stability in developing nations (food competition, “green grabbing” land confiscation by rich nations in poor countries, displacement of native populations, pseudo-slave labor, etc. Dozens of national and international aid and environmental organizations including UNFP and UNFAO have petitioned the governments of each of the G20 nations to end all biofuel mandates because of the very real injury and damage they have observed since 2007 due to the diversion of agricultural resources from food and conservation to fuel.
    7. US biodiesel and corn ethanol are more expensive today than diesel and gasoline per unit of energy delivered even after 8 years of huge subsidies (see AAA’s Daily Fuel Gauge Report http://fuelgaugereport.opisnet.com/index.asp ) and their prices show the same volatility as petroleum fuels.
    8. The US is already more dependent upon foreign imports of agricultural minerals than it is on imports of oil from the Persian Gulf. Biofuels require huge additional amounts of ammonia (46% imported), potash (75% imported), and phosphate (11% imported from Morocco, an Islamic kingdom in North Africa where Al Qaeda is resurgent).
    9. Biofuels must be made month-by-month and year-to-year with no proved reserves.
    10. Making our energy supply dependent upon agricultural is to make both the food and the energy pillars of our economy simultaneously vulnerable to the ruinous threats of drought, flood, frost, blight, and imported fertilizer embargo.
    11. Biofuels are not “renewable” because they are grown using non-renewable resources such as fossil fuel, depleting fresh water aquifers, and finite phosphate reserves.

    A rational national energy strategy must recognize that we need to use finite fossil fuel resources as efficiently as possible and in their optimum role as transportation fuels, while developing alternative energy sources that require no boosting by fossil fuel or finite resources needed for food production. Biomass is the absolutely worst way to convert fossil fuel energy into transportation fuel. Shifting the nation backward into a pre-industrial agrarian economy undermines our national security and international economic competitiveness.

    See http://wici.ca/new/resources/occasional-papers/#no.4 for detailed explanations and citations.

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  2. By Russ Finley on May 11, 2013 at 1:53 pm

    Good comment. Your “21st Century Snake Oil” paper did a nice job confirming my existing biases ; )

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  3. By Russ Finley on May 11, 2013 at 3:23 pm

    This article seems to contradict an earlier article titled:

    Why I’m Done Talking About Energy Security

    We should remember that, even if the military uses oil solely from the United States and its allies, the price that the Defense Logistics Agency pays for oil is largely set by global market conditions.

    That’s true but because the Department of Defense energy consumption is only 1-2% of the U.S. total, and a very small fraction of a percent of global energy use, it is not possible for the military to reduce global oil prices even if it replaced all of its oil use with biofuels. So, clearly, military use of biofuels can’t stop oil price spikes by lowering the price of liquid fuels, nor do biofuels have any impact on political stability in oil producing countries. So, we can scratch oil price stability as a reason to use biofuels. Even our massive use of corn ethanol has had no measurable impact on global oil prices.

    …it is strategically important for the military to develop new sources of energy like biofuels.
    …the military’s single-source dependence on petroleum for fuel is a strategic vulnerability.

    This is a lot like a discussion about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin, i.e., the strategic vulnerability premise may be wrong. I realize that some politicians make that claim as part of their pandering to voters (pork barrel politics, particularly in farm states) but I don’t see anything in your article that supports the idea that biofuels are really strategically important. As pointed out above, military use can’t stabilize oil prices. Germany fought an entire world war with its coal.

    If someone were to find a way to produce biofuels cheaper than oil, the entire global liquid fuel market would immediately begin replacing oil with it. Prices would remain low only if it could meet demand, which it couldn’t, which is why it would quickly cost the same as oil.

    In many ways, the Navy has taken a lead on the transfer from oil to biofuels, as is appropriate for a branch that pioneered the move from sail to steam, coal to oil, and nuclear propulsion.

    Note that each transition was caused by an increase in efficiency. A better analogy for biofuels (the conversion of recenlty alive flora or fauna into fuel) would be a return to whale oil.

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