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Push in Congress to ban biofuels in military has big long-term costs

The US armed services is working hard to wean itself off of fossil fuels and foreign oil. Yet some in Congress, for short-term savings, want to ban them from purchasing biofuels. Cutting investments in long-term solutions like alternative fuel will cost America dearly in the future.

By Norman Seip / July 16, 2012

An A-10C Thunderbolt II flies over Florida's Gulf Coast on June 29, marking the second flight of an aircraft powered solely by an alcohol-derived jet fuel blend (biofuel). Op-ed contributor Lt. Gen. Norman Seip, US Air Force (retired), says: 'Lawmakers who support [a] misguided ban on biofuels [in the military] may see it as a way to cut costs in the short term. But in the long run, keeping us shackled to fossil fuels comes with even bigger costs...'

Joely Santiago/US Air Force/Reuters

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Alexandria, Va.

For 35 years, I had the honor of serving in the US Air Force. Whether I was flying F-15s over Iraq or commanding the 12th Air Force at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, one concern was always constant: fuel.

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The Air Force is the nation’s largest user of oil and gas. It spends about $8 billion on petroleum and electricity every year – the vast majority on fuel for our aircraft. Every time oil goes up $1 a barrel, it costs the defense department (and we taxpayers) about $130 million.

And remember: This fuel often comes from foreign countries that are hostile to our way of life. We must send our fighting men and women into harm’s way to defend it, to transport it, to burn it. When we burn it, of course, it creates new problems for our health and our planet.

For all these reasons and more, the Air Force and the rest of the armed services are working hard to wean themselves off of fossil fuels and find new alternatives. Yet some in Congress, driven by short-sighted politics and backed by entrenched fossil-fuel interests, suddenly want our military to retreat.

The House of Representatives recently voted to ban the Department of Defense from purchasing biofuels until they get to the point where they’re cheaper than fossil fuels – even though the biofuels industry is still trying to claw its way toward competitiveness against the highly subsided oil and gas industry.

The Senate Armed Services Committee also has voted to prohibit Department of Defense from pursuing the development and purchase of advanced biofuels. The full Senate is expected to vote on the committee’s proposal in coming weeks.

Lawmakers who support this misguided ban on biofuels may see it as a way to cut costs in the short term. But in the long run, keeping us shackled to fossil fuels comes with even bigger costs, as we've already learned so well.

In the military, alternative fuels and energy-saving technologies are not pie-in-the-sky pipe dreams. Right now, the US Navy is deploying an entire carrier strike group – ships, planes, submarines – that operates on a blend of conventional and algae-based biofuels as part of the 22-nation Rim of the Pacific exercise.

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