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Navy 2, Congress 0 in Biofuel Cage Match

$420 in matching grants for 3 military biofuels

The U.S. Navy appears to be steamrolling easily over a Republican-led effort to quash its biofuel initiatives. Early last week, the Obama administration announced a Navy-supported $62 million biofuel research program, and it followed up a few days later with another $420 million effort by the Department of Defense to build not one but three biofuel refineries for military aircraft and vessels. Together, these programs will help lower the cost and raise the availability of biofuels for both the military and civilian markets.

More and Cheaper Biofuel

The two announcements come after a months-long battle that culminated in a Congressional ban on biofuel purchases by the Department of Defense, at least until the price of biofuel becomes competitive with conventional fossil fuels.

The $62 million initiative is designed to dodge that maneuver by focusing on foundational research and demonstration-scale projects that will help speed up the development of cheaper, more efficient ways to produce biofuels, hastening the day when the price will drop to or below fossil fuel prices.

The new $420 million biofuel program, as reported by Reuters, involves $210 million in matching federal funds for private companies to build three large-scale biorefineries, each with a capacity of at least 10 million gallons per year.

That initiative apparently circumvents another Congressional mandate promoted by Senator John McCain (ironically, an ex-Navy man), that banned the Department of Defense from building its own biorefineries.

The U.S. Navy and Alternative Fuels

The Air Force, Coast Guard, Marine Corps and Army have also been transitioning to alternative fuels, but the U.S. Navy has been taking almost all of the heat from members of Congress (yes, primarily Republicans) who are opposed to the Navy’s strategy of helping to bring down the price of biofuel through its potential for large-scale purchasing.

Part of the attention is due to year-long publicity leading up to the launch of the Navy’s new Green Strike Group in a huge multinational, competitive maritime exercise called the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC). The Green Strike Group is anchored by a nuclear carrier but other ships and aircraft in the group are powered with the help of a 50-50 biofuel blend.

In addition, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has emerged as an eloquent spokesperson for the interrelationship of biofuels, energy security and greenhouse gas management as they relate to national security.

Mabus also has a knack for positioning military biofuels within the historical timeline of U.S. innovation, especially as applied to the Navy. In a biofuel conference call with reporters late last year, Mabus stated:

“…Our use of fossil fuels is a very real threat to our national security and to the U.S. Navy’s ability to protect America and to project power overseas…In history, Navy has always led in changing fuel types. We went from sail to coal in the 1850s. We went from coal to oil in the early part of the 20th century, and we pioneered nuclear in the 1950s.”

Green Fuels, Green Jobs

In the same conference call, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack described USDA programs that support the development of low cost, drop in biofuels for the Department of Defense (and of course, the civilian world, too) along with support for farmers growing biofuel crops.

That includes USDA loans for two biorefineries in 2011 with more to come this year, new “virtural” research centers, public-private research efforts partnering Agricultural Research Service scientists with the biofuel industry, and Forest Service research initiatives.

In addition, the USDA’s Crop Management and Crop Insurance Program is moving forward on plans to provide insurance for biofuel crops.

What this all amounts to, according to Vilsack, is not only an end-run around Congress but also “tremendous job creating opportunities inherent in every single one of these steps.”

In that regard, if you’re looking at the latest national jobs report and wondering why things aren’t picking up any faster, just consider how much energy members of Congress (again, primarily Republican representatives) have been spending to crush the U.S. biofuel industry, to say nothing of their lack of support for the U.S. wind industry and the stinkeye they have been casting on the U.S. solar industry. It’s almost like they want the U.S. industrial sector to fail.


Image: Some rights reserved by USDAgov.

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey

(Updated July 9, 2012) Readers please note: Commenter Cliff Claven has left a detailed critique of U.S. military biofuel policy in the thread below. If you are interested in seeing more examples of Cliff’s insights, you can also find them in the comment threads on several other articles of mine at CleanTechnica (just google our names together with “biofuel,”) as well as on my article at Triple Pundit, Jon Soltz’s article in Huffington Post (Jon is a veteran and co-founder of VoteVets), and Eric Beidel’s article in National Defense Magazine. Cliff, our readers might also be interested to know who you are working for, or what motivates your personal interest in this topic. Please feel free to leave a note in the comments. Thanks!

Here’s his comment link on Huffpo.

And here he is again at NationalDefense

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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