U.S. Navy servicemen and women recently debuted the “Great Green Fleet,” the first aircraft carrier strike group to be powered largely by alternative, nonpetroleum-based fuels. Despite this latest success, however, some congressional conservatives on the Senate and House Armed Services committees want to slash funding for this and other Defense Department clean energy programs. This would short-circuit investments in energy innovation that could have civilian applications and benefits, helping our nation become less reliant on oil. In addition, sole reliance on oil-based fuels subjects the defense budget to increased spending for fuel when the price of oil spikes.
Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus provided the leadership to build the “Great Green Fleet”—an essential milestone in the Department of Defense’s efforts to reduce its oil dependence by diversifying fuels. The development and use of alternative fuels is vital to the safety of our troops because it diversifies the fuel mix that powers their vessels, planes, and vehicles. That makes them less vulnerable to an oil supply disruption in the Middle East or elsewhere. It is also vital to the long-term fiscal health of our nation because any effort to reduce our reliance on volatilely priced fossil fuels is good for our economy. The Navy’s investment in alternative fuels to power the “Great Green Fleet” is an essential effort to reduce its oil dependence and exposure to volatile prices.
The biofuel blends used in the five-ship demonstration were 50-50 mixtures of biofuels—made from used cooking oil and algae—and petroleum-based marine diesel or aviation fuel. About 450,000 gallons of 100 percent “neat” biofuel was purchased in 2011 for this purpose.
Conservative lawmakers have opposed the U.S. military’s use of advanced biofuels, however, claiming that they are concerned about the cost of these new, nonoil fuels. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said, “I don’t believe we can afford it.” Another critic, Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA), said during a hearing earlier this year that, “I understand that alternative fuels may help our guys in the field, but wouldn’t you agree that the thing they’d be more concerned about is having more ships, more planes, more prepositioned stocks?”
These arguments ignore the drain on America’s defense budget from oil price spikes such as those experienced earlier this year. The Department of Defense estimates that for every $1 increase in the price of a barrel of oil, the military incurs an additional $130 million in fuel costs. In fact, a Center for American Progress analysis (see table) found that the most recent oil price spike cost the Department of Defense $123 million more for oil purchases from January to May of this year compared to purchases one year ago over the same months. The 2012 price spike forced $1.1 billion more spending for oil compared to the same time in 2010.
There’s no end in sight for the strain of high oil prices on the Department of Defense. According to Energy Department statistics, world oil prices will average an estimated $145 a barrel in 2035 (in 2010 dollars), up from the current $85-to-$110 range this year.
This past May, groups including Pew Charitable Trusts, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and Airlines for America issued a joint statement voicing their opposition to the antibiofuel amendments adopted by the Senate Committee on Armed Services:
In fiscal years 2011 and 2012, DoD came up $5.6 billion short in its budget for military operations and maintenance because it spent more on fuel than anticipated. Moreover, the United States sends $1 billion overseas each and every day to pay for foreign oil, further draining resources from the U.S. economy.
Rep. Forbes argues that studies show biofuel will always be more expensive than petroleum, but the Defense Department’s purchase of small amounts of biofuel for research and development has already dramatically reduced its price, as manufacturers streamline production processes. In fact, the cost of biofuel was cut in half in two years, according to Secretary Mabus.