By: Hope Hodge
A Navy exercise in the Pacific this week showcasing ships and planes powered by a biofuel blend has been largely overshadowed by the apparent political failure of the controversial initiative.
The first sailing of the “Great Green Fleet,” announced in 2009 by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, took place Wednesday: the simple demonstration near Hawaii featured a guided missile cruiser and two destroyers pushing through the ocean, escorted by an assortment of aircraft maneuvering above—all powered by a $12 million purchase of the experimental fuels. At about $26 per gallon, the biofuels cost between five and six times more than conventional sources.
Mabus envisioned powering half the Navy fleet on the costly fuels by 2020, a grand proposition that in recent weeks faced a sobering reality. According to a little-known July 2011 Defense Department study unearthed by Wired Magazine, the initiative could cost the service almost an additional $1.9 billion per year. The price for many was too high, at a time of cutbacks and budget fears. So, this week’s Green Fleet fanfare, instead of portending an expansive future, may turn out to be the program’s closing ceremony.
Astounded at the potential costs of investing in experimental energy, the House and Senate both wrote biofuels expenditures out of their versions of the Fiscal 2013 National Defense Authorization Act in June.
The House also included a provision that would exempt the military from carbon emissions limits that keep the federal government from using cheap and plentiful domestic fuel sources such as oil shale, and this week Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) wrote a letter to President Barack Obama petitioning him to repeal the limits wholesale.
“You have vehemently claimed that requiring DoD to spend exorbitant amounts of an already stretched budget on alternative fuels is about national security…one common-sense solution to drive down the cost of fuel would be to repeal the restrictions,” Inhofe wrote.
“We don’t have to be dependent on the Middle East if we can just develop our resources here at home,” the senator told Human Events in an interview.
Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), who has publicly chastised Mabus for his extensive support of government funding for the biofuels market, told Human Events he wasn’t against any form of alternative energy; he just wanted to see due diligence studies on the cost and benefits of biofuels completed before the Navy embraced them.
He praised the Air Force for taking a more balanced approach to alternatives. The service spent a relatively modest $639,000 in June to test biofuels in aircraft, without the fanfare and long-range predictions employed by the Navy.
“The Navy has got the cart in front of the horse,” he said.
Moreover, Forbes said, predictions that biofuels would increase the safety of deployed troops likely were overblown.
“When our ships leave port, 90 percent of what they use for fuel is purchased overseas, not domestically,” Forbes said during a briefing. “None of this will come into play.”
While Inhofe and Forbes remain committed to monitoring military green expenditures they see as fiscally irresponsible, the fervor of Navy leaders appears undimmed. In a conference call with reporters on Thursday, Mabus announced the Green Fleet demonstration had been an unmitigated success.
“One of the things that we’ve always said is that we’re not going to buy large amounts of these (biofuels) until they become competitive,” Mabus said. “But one of the ways they become competitive is by the military providing a market for them.”
The Navy Secretary may not have access to defense funds to pay for this green vision, but the Obama administration announced earlier this month that a partnership between the Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy, and the Navy would allow for an additional investment of $30 million to support biofuels development and research. Even so, a deployed green fleet, projected earlier this year to debut in 2016, may face indefinite postponement.