A Senate panel yesterday narrowly voted to block the U.S. military from increasing its use of alternatives to petroleum-based fuels. The move echoes a similar ban on alternatives agreed to by the House of Representatives last week . The measure is expected to be taken up by the full Senate in June.
In separate 13-to-12 votes, the Senate Armed Services Committee adopted amendments to ban the Department of Defense (DOD) from paying more for alternative fuels than conventional petroleum-based supplies and from building a biofuel refinery unless explicitly authorized to do so. Senators Joseph Manchin III (D-WV) and Jim Webb (D-VA) provided the margin of victory for the proposals, introduced by senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Jim Inhofe (R-OK). No Republicans voted against either amendment, although Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) abstained from voting on both provisions.
The amendments aren't just about the military's plans, Inhofe made clear last week in an interview with a conservative publication. "Despite President Obama's recent change in rhetoric for his reelection campaign, he remains fully determined to implement his all-out attack on traditional American energy development—and the military is the one place where he can force it to happen," Inhofe told Human Events.
Critics say the new measures undermine efforts to diversify fuel sources and make the country less dependent on foreign oil. "Our committee traditionally works in an exemplary bipartisan fashion to do what is best for our troops and our security," said Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) in a statement yesterday. "Unfortunately, some of my colleagues chose to stifle DOD's incredible work on developing new energy technologies that will help break our dependence on fossil fuels and protect troops in harm's way. We took a big step backwards, but I will be bringing this fight to the floor."
"It's a disappointment," agrees Phyllis Cuttino, director of the clean energy program at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, D.C. Pew has closely studied fuel use by the DOD and backs a move toward alternatives. "[Yesterday's] vote will hurt DOD's efforts to protect its budget from oil price shocks, diversify its energy mix, and ensure security of supply," Cuttino says.
DOD is the largest user of fuel in the world, accounting for approximately 2% of total U.S. fuel consumption. So oil shortages and price spikes can put a real crimp in its budget. Last year, such price spikes cost DOD an additional $3.6 billion.
To reduce the pain, DOD officials have pushed a broad program of investing in alternative energy sources dating back to the Bush Administration. DOD is planning to spend $1.4 billion in 2013 to improve energy use in military operations. Roughly 90% of that is to improve efficiency and reduce fuel use. The other 10% is to expand supply options by investing in alternatives and renewable energy.
As part of this support, in December the Navy agreed to spend $12 million for 450,000 gallons of "advanced biofuels," which can be blended with petroleum in a 50:50 mixture and burned in conventional engines. The Navy and Air Force have both set a goal of using advanced biofuels for 50% of their fuel use by the end of this decade. But the current $26-a-gallon price tag angered congressional Republicans, who accuse the Obama Administration of using the military to support its green agenda.
But military officials insist that alternative energy is essential to their mission, and that their investments are intended to promote biofuel use and thus drive down costs. "While the Navy does not intend to purchase alternative liquid fuels for operational use until they are price competitive with petroleum-based fuels, the Navy needs flexibility to continue the testing and certification of all potential alternative fuel pathways to ensure the Navy has an 'off-ramp' from conventional fuel sources," Naval Chief of Operations Jonathan Greenert wrote to the committee this week. Of the new restrictions, Greenert added: "I believe this will impede America's energy security."