May 21, 2012 — Recent hearings on Capitol Hill suggest that there is a bit of confusion about the military’s efforts to research, develop and test renewable fuels. Critics charge the Navy and the other services with being co-opted by a green agenda – adopting biofuels for the sole purpose of combating climate change and promoting eco-friendly interests. But that is not it at all. Although being environmentally sustainable and improving energy security are not mutually exclusive, the military’s efforts are first and foremost about improving mission effectiveness and ensuring that our soldiers, sailors and airmen have access to the fuel they need to conduct their operations and protect U.S. interests.
The U.S. military is overwhelmingly dependent on fossil fuels, with nearly 80 percent of its energy coming from petroleum fuel. This dependence brings both fiscal challenges and concerns about assured access to energy resources. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in 2008 that “Every time the price of oil goes up by 1 dollar per barrel, it costs us about 130 million dollars.” Moreover, the potential for petroleum supplies to be disrupted by a conflict abroad or a natural disaster at home raises the risks for the military to rely solely on petroleum to fuel the force.
These are compelling reasons to invest in alternative sources of liquid fuels. In an era of fiscally constrained budgets, improving energy efficiency and diversifying fuel sources through investments in renewable fuel, as well as the electrification of non-combat vehicles, can help insulate the Department of Defense from dramatic petroleum spikes that divert scarce resources away from other pressing priorities. Moreover, developing non-petroleum energy sources that perform the same as conventional fossil fuels can provide the U.S. military emergency energy supplies in case a crisis chokes off access to petroleum for any particular length of time.
To hedge against uncertainty with petroleum prices and supply, the Department of Defense is investing research and development dollars in energy conservation and efficiency programs, as well as renewable biofuels derived from hydro-treated algae and camelina feedstock in an effort to develop a drop-in replacement (i.e., chemically equivalent) to petroleum that will provide military logisticians an alternative liquid fuel that can bolster assured access to energy and at a potentially affordable price.
Affordability is a sticking point for congressional critics who are seeking to constrain the military’s ability to procure biofuels unless they are cost competitive with conventional petroleum. For example, the Navy’s energy program procures biofuel at a higher cost than the Defense Logistics Agency contracts for petroleum. However, critics seem to ignore the fact that these fuels are still in the research and development phase. Prices are expected to come down significantly once the effort shifts to commercial production. Indeed, the prices have declined dramatically in just the few short years that the Navy’s energy program has invested in biofuel. The Navy’s initial purchase of advanced biofuel for testing and evaluation in 2009, for example, cost US$424 a gallon for 20,055 gallons of biofuel. In 2011, the Navy announced its largest purchase ever of 450,000 gallons of advanced biofuel for approximately US$26 a gallon for continued testing and evaluation, 94 percent in savings compared to the first purchase.
But what should critics make of the military’s investment in cleaner fuels such as carbon-neutral algae biofuel versus dirtier fuels derived from coal-to-liquid technology? Put simply, it is an effort by the military to hedge against strategic uncertainty associated with climate change.
Despite the perennial debate around anthropogenic climate change, there is broad consensus within the scientific community that the burning of fossil fuels is contributing to global climate change. Moreover, there is increasing recognition within the security community and the Department of Defense in particular that climate change will affect the global security environment in ways that could impact the military’s facilities, missions and capabilities. In its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Department of Defense concluded that climate change “may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world,” potentially increasing the demand on the U.S. military to conduct humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions in vulnerable countries that carry strategic significance for the United States (e.g., Indonesia).
Keeping in mind that the military’s investments in energy are driven first and foremost by a need for fuels that perform the same as petroleum, a secondary driver for the military’s investments in energy should be the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to help manage the potential risks associated with climate change, including challenges that military is charged with responding to.
Although these efforts are not nearly enough to reverse climate change, these energy investments help demonstrate that addressing energy security and climate change are not mutually exclusive. This could have knock-on effects in the private sector by encouraging others to adopt carbon-neutral fuels and mitigate the impacts of climate change over the long term. In November 2011, for example, United Continental Holdings, Inc. followed in the Navy’s footsteps by announcing that it would begin procuring 20 million gallons of algae-based biofuel annually beginning as early as 2014. Although it is difficult to judge on balance the longer term trend developing here, this is a positive development.
The bottom line: Clean energy investments will allow the U.S. military to protect U.S. national security interests by managing the risks associated with petroleum dependence and potential climate-related security challenges. Both are good for the military and the nation.Related: