It ain’t over ’til it’s over, but yesterday the Senate took a big step toward freeing up the Department of Defense to go full steam ahead with its ambitious biofuel initiatives. The move is especially significant because along with the expected Democratic supporters, the vote in favor of biofuels included a whopping 11 senators from the Republican side of the aisle. That’s no mere token representation from the party that has been known for digging in its heels against alternative energy for the past several years. Now the stage is set for a showdown in committee, when the House and Senate work out their differences.
Who’s Afraid of Military Biofuels?
For those of you who are new to the issue, of all the branches of the Armed Services, the U.S. Navy has been the most aggressive early adopter of biofuels including next-generation feedstocks like algae, which it showcased in the launch of a Green Strike Force last July.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has made no secret of his goal, which is to use the Navy’s purchasing power to help kickstart a competitive, commercial market for next-generation biofuels.
Last spring, Republican legislators pushed new rules aimed at blocking the Navy from purchasing significant quantities of biofuel, or any alternative fuel that is more expensive than conventional fuels. The Navy was also blocked from building its own biorefineries.
Military Biofuels Forge Ahead
Despite the roadblocks, the Obama Administration has enabled the Navy to keep at least some forward momentum going. Last July, the Administration announced a $62 million biofuel initiative partnering the Navy with the departments of Energy and Agriculture.
Later that same week, the Pentagon announced a $420 million biofuel initiative to build biorefineries with private sector partners, and in August the departments of the Interior and Defense signed a memorandum of understanding that frees up military lands for alternative energy projects.
That’s pretty much how things stood this month, when the National Defense Authorization Act came up for debate.
Yesterday’s action in the Senate resulted in the 62-37 passage of an amendment introduced by Democratic Senators Tom Udall and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, along with Senator Mark Udall (D-CO), that clarifies the Defense Department’s ability to continue purchasing next-generation biofuels.
Errr…New Mexico and Military Biofuels?
New Mexico is hardly the first state you might think of when you think of biofuel-producing states, but take a look at the emerging algae biofuel industry and you’ll see why two senators from that state went out on a limb for military biofuel.
According to Senator Udall:
“With these amendments, we are ensuring New Mexico is a leader in the 21st century clean energy economy, and at the forefront of the national security achievements being made at our national labs and within the defense community. Our biofuels amendment is especially important to national security and businesses in our state so I’m glad we were able to get one over the finish line today.”
And then there’s Senator Bingaman:
“The National Defense Authorization Act is one of the most important bills for New Mexico because it helps fund our national labs and our military installations. I am especially glad that the Senate adopted our amendment to allow the Pentagon to invest in all types of fuels – including biofuels — for its fleets. The Defense Department is a major consumer of fuel, and the more homegrown, cleaner-burning fuel it purchases the better off we will be.”
More Hurdles for Military Biofuels
So, now all we have to do is wait and see what the House and Senate work out in committee.
Success is definitely not a foregone conclusion, but as the senators from New Mexico demonstrate, biofuels have been building a constituency far beyond the comfort zone of the corn belt. At least the prospects for increasing bipartisan support look better than they did just a few months ago.
[Update: Our friends over at The Hill report that yesterday the Senate followed up by passing another amendment that removes the restriction on constructing biorefineries.]
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.