March 01, 2012

A Plan Revisited: Fueling the Future Force

Worsening tensions with Iran in recent weeks are in part to
blame for higher oil and gas prices. In response to these higher prices, there
has been a lot of discussion about how to reduce our demand for oil, including
with the use of more renewable and alternative energy for electricity
generation. And while I certainly support the use of more diverse energy
technologies to meet our electricity needs, it is worth remembering that liquid
fuels are the real albatross when it comes to moving away from our outsized
dependence on oil. Addressing that challenge requires a serious reduction in
gas consumption in the near term, through conservation and efficiency
practices, and a chemical replacement in the long term.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, about
two-thirds of oil is consumed by the transportation sector in the United States
This includes gasoline for vehicles, as well as diesel, jet and residual fuels.
As we think about how to reduce our demand for oil, diversifying our liquid fuel
sources will be crucial. There are a lot of challenges of course with
developing a liquid fuel replacement. The fuels must be cleaner than conventional fossil fuels so that we are making
progress toward reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and contribution to
global climate change. The fuels must be chemically
to fossil fuel so that they are capable of being dropped in to existing vehicles. This is
extremely important and has implications both for vehicle performance and the
longevity of our existing infrastructure that transports fuel around the
country (i.e., pipelines). 

The U.S. military is giving serious thought about its
dependence on oil, in part as a response to higher oil and gas prices, as well
as concerns with assured access to fuel in the future. Indeed, oil and gas
prices take a toll on the Department of Defense and have implications for
policy, especially in this austere budget environment. Every $10 increase in a
barrel of oil adds about $1.3 billion to the department’s gasoline bill
. Of
course, many of the efforts the department is currently leading to develop
alternative fuels are generating fuels that are still today relatively more
expensive than conventional gasoline. But as experts correctly note, these
fuels are still in the research and development phase. As the companies
producing these alternative fuels move toward commercial deployment they will
become cost competitive with oil – some of them within the next decade or


The long-term concern, and perhaps the most important
consideration for the Department of Defense as it looks to the future, is
assured access to fuel. Increasing global demand could have serious
implications for the military’s ability to easily acquire the oil and gas it
needs to fuel its force and execute its missions. Some analysts suggest that by
2050 access to oil will become severely constrained, even if demand were to
remain flat today. Having a diverse set of options for drop-in fuel helps the
military hedge against this looming uncertainty and provides some assurance
that the military will be capable of meeting its future fuel requirements, and
more importantly, protecting U.S. interests at home and abroad. 

John Nagl and Christine Parthemore authored a seminal report in 2010 laying out twelve
steps the Department of Defense should take in moving away from its oil
dependence over the next 30 years
. It is a plan worth revisiting and taking
seriously as we look at a future with higher oil prices and constrained