Military's Green Energy Criticized By Congress

The military says it's dangerous to depend exclusively on fossil fuels, and has launched a program to develop alternative fuels for use by military vehicles. Energy consumption is a big expense for the Pentagon. But some members of Congress don't think the military should be a laboratory for finding energy alternatives, and say the military should not be spending money on this kind of research at a time when defense dollars are shrinking.

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Over the next few weeks, a group of Navy ships will be steaming around the Pacific powered by alternative fuels. It's the first demonstration of the Navy's great green fleet, part of an effort to reduce the U.S. military's dependence on oil.

But, as NPR's Larry Abramson reports, Congress wants to cut off funding for alternative fuels, saying they cost too much.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Tom Hicks says, in recent months when oil prices spiked, the military felt the consequences right where it counts.

TOM HICKS: The Navy, not unlike the Army and the Air Force, saw a $1 billion additional fuel bill due to the increased cost of petroleum, conventional petroleum.

ABRAMSON: That's why the Navy is fielding a green fleet of planes and ships that can use fuels from alternative sources instead of just petroleum. That fleet is in testing now and should be operational by 2016. This effort is a big boost to backers of alternative fuels, like Suzanne Hunt, who works on a project called the Carbon War Room.

SUZANNE HUNT: As opposed to mining oil or coal or other fossil fuels out of the ground, they're actually just taking renewable resources like algae, like garbage, like woody biomass grasses, a whole array of different renewable resources, and turning those into what they call drop-in hydrocarbon fuels.

ABRAMSON: There's one problem with the Pentagon's plan, according to Republican Texas Congressman Mike Conaway.

REPRESENTATIVE MIKE CONAWAY: It costs too much money. Buying fuel at $27 a gallon versus $4 a gallon is just something that no one would do in all circumstances.

ABRAMSON: And Congressman Conaway says circumstances are far from normal. The military faces extraordinary budget pressures right now. Conaway and other members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees have attached restrictions to the proposed Pentagon budget that would prohibit the use of anything more expensive than oil.

Green fleet supporters point out these fuels will drop in price once production ramps up, but only if major fuel consumers show interest and, by any definition, the military is a big user of oil, drinking up 340,000 barrels per day.

Suzanne Hunt says military support has been key to adoption of many technologies.

HUNT: Think the Internet, computers, cell phones, GPS - all of those technologies came out of DOD.

ABRAMSON: So, Hunt says, why not throw the same support behind alternative fuels? The Pentagon says there's also a strategic advantage because depending solely on oil puts the U.S. at the mercy of countries that are often unreliable.

But Congressman Conaway doesn't buy that. As much as the military uses, he says it only consumes a small fraction of the eight million barrels the U.S. produces each day.

CONAWAY: You know, the scenario that, somehow, we need these boutique fuels in order to protect us from a strategic loss of crude oil, you know - we take care of the military needs first and the rest of the country would tighten its belt.

ABRAMSON: When James Bartis of the RAND Corporation studied the problem, he found little or no strategic advantage to bio-fuels.

JAMES BARTIS: You can't make alternative fuels in the battlefield. The military's big problem is not buying the fuel, but getting it to frontline units.

ABRAMSON: Even if the U.S. could produce enough alternative fuel, Bartis says it would be just as complicated to get it to a war zone as conventional fuels are. Bartis also questions whether producers will make exotic fuels if only the military is showing interest.

BARTIS: The national benefit only comes from them focusing on fuels that can meet the much, much larger civilian needs.

ABRAMSON: Still, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus says he's determined to make the Navy a player in the market for alternative fuels, but he'll have a hard time doing that if Congress approves restrictions on how the military can spend its energy dollars.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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