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.

Joely Santiago/US Air Force/Reuters
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...'

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.

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.

The Army and Marines, meanwhile, are deploying solar-powered “micro-grids” to forward operating bases in places like Afghanistan, reducing the heavy batteries they must bring to the fight as well as the number of oil and gas truck convoys that are easy targets for ambush and roadside bombs.

My own Air Force has certified a wide variety of aircraft, including A-10C attack jets, supersonic F-22 Raptors, and airlift aircraft like the C-17 using advanced biofuels and other alternative fuel blends.

Since the military consumes some 300,000 barrels of oil each day, finding alternative fuels is an absolute necessity. And these efforts are creating a side benefit for the US economy, too: They’re helping build a new marketplace for US clean-energy companies and entrepreneurs.

The Air Force, Army, and Navy have pledged to get at least half of their fuel from alternative sources. The Army is working toward a “Net Zero” strategy where its bases will consume only as much energy or water as they produce.

This effort isn’t about being “green” or saving the planet. Certainly, it’s not about politics: Some of these initiatives have been in the works for decades. This is about saving money in the long-term – and most importantly – about saving lives.

In Afghanistan, 1 out of every 24 fuel convoys incurred one or more military or civilian casualties in 2010. The availability of alternatives like solar and better fuel efficiency means fewer fuel convoys and fewer casualties.

The longer-term threats to our military and our country are real, too.

Our country’s dependence on foreign countries – hostile or friendly – for oil and gas adds to geopolitical tensions. Each year, we taxpayers spend between $67 billion and $83 billion putting our troops in harm’s way to defend oil interests overseas, according to estimates from RAND Corp.

In addition to guarding fuel-shipping lanes in dangerous places like the Straits of Hormuz, the Navy must now prepare to defend new sea-lanes created by the melting of ice caps – a phenomenon that scientists connect with burning fossil fuels.

Cutting short-term expenses is a constant challenge in the military and in our government today. But cutting investments in long-term solutions like alternative fuels and energy efficiency will cost the military and all of us dearly in the future – in money and in lives.

Lt. Gen. Norman Seip, US Air Force (Ret.), served as commander, 12th Air Force at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.

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