Is the U.S. Military Fighting Straw Men?

March 4, 2013 |

Are supporters of the oil industry grasping at straws to keep the U.S. military addicted to oil?


By Brent Erickson, executive vice-president, Biotechnology Industry Organization; head, Industrial & Environmental Section

Achieving energy security is critical not only for civilians, but also for U.S. military readiness and national security reasons. Our reliance on foreign oil has already impacted military readiness, as spiraling oil prices forced the Department of Defense to shift funds to pay for fuel.  It’s time to separate the wheat from the chaff for those impressed by spurious arguments against alternative fuels.

Overly optimistic petroleum addicts and boosters say we can become energy independent soon, with new oil finds in the U.S.  A recent white paper from the American Security Project presents a cogent argument that we can’t drill our way out of oil dependence.

A fact sheet from the group, What Is Energy Independence?, explains, “Oil prices are determined by the global interaction of supply, demand, and the perception of future changes in supply or demand on the world market. These market forces are mostly out of America’s control; the U.S. does not produce enough domestic oil to significantly affect price.” The group points out, “Even if the U.S. could produce all the oil it used, that oil would be subject to global market fluctuations – and those market prices are dominated by demand growth in developing countries and by supply changes by large producers like the Persian Gulf.”

Besides serious geopolitical concerns, there are major economic concerns for policy makers to consider. The U.S. military is as vulnerable to pain at the pump as every other American consumer. And that pain has been pretty severe lately. In 2012, the average U.S. consumer paid $0.12 more for every gallon of gasoline than in 2011. Over the year, the average household paid $250 more for gasoline than in 2011 – while cutting back on driving and using fewer gallons overall. And average U.S. prices for gasoline spiraled $0.45 a gallon in the first month of 2013. Ouch.

For every $0.25 rise in the price of jet fuel, the Department of Defense has to come up with an extra $1 billion from its budget. But unlike the average consumer, the military can’t cut back on defending our country and can’t go out and buy a more fuel-efficient tank, plane or ship. In 2012, the increase in oil prices resulted in more than $3 billion in unplanned expenses the Pentagon – and those costs had to be diverted from training, maintenance, and other mission-essential programs.  Perhaps former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said it best in a recent interview with Esquire magazine:

“One of my biggest bills in this place is fuel cost — especially in the Navy. All of the tanks, all of those trucks, all of the planes that we fly, all of that is dependent on fuel, and when the price of fuel goes up, my costs go up dramatically. So our ability to develop alternative energy and energy independence not only saves money, but it’s an investment in our national security.”

The military requires liquid fuels, but it is not threatened with short supply. Forty years ago, when the United States faced the oil embargo, Congress put in place measures to ensure military access and supply – the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve is a case in point. In fact, the U.S. has a long history of ensuring that we build and maintain domestic capacity to produce vital military materials – steel for shipbuilding, computer chips and semiconductors, and the aluminum and titanium industries are all examples where the United States recognized a national security need, set a policy course and got the job done.

The Navy, in particular, has been a pioneer in developing new energy sources and modes of travel, from coal-powered ships to the nuclear submarine. U.S. Senators agreed last year by a significant margin that the Navy should help lead – in cooperation with the USDA and DOE – an effort to commercialize military specification advanced biofuels. That effort still awaits Congressional action to fund this fiscal year’s appropriations – a fight that will follow the sequestration.

Opponents of the Navy biorefinery development plan are still looking for any reason to cut funding. But a recently released paper by Captain Todd A. “Ike” Kiefer, from the Department of Strategy at the USAF Air War College, offers nothing but straw man arguments against the program. The author’s acknowledgements comprise a rogue’s gallery of biofuel critics, including professors David Pimentel and Todd Patzek, and analysts Tom Elam and James Bartis.

The paper recycles their old arguments against ethanol as a justification for abandoning the Navy biofuel effort. However, the military effort requires production of drop in fuels that match and blend with existing military specification jet fuels and marine diesels – not ethanol. Capt. Kiefer’s criticisms of the environmental impact of biofuels are never once compared to the growing environmental damage from marginal sources of petroleum.

Every branch of the military has begun a program to certify the use of drop in biofuels for its existing equipment. Biotechnology is enabling the production of fuel molecules that match the performance of petroleum fuels, and the Navy’s Rim of the Pacific warfare exercises last summer were the largest demonstration that the potential for these fuels is real. Advanced biofuels are well worth pursuing to achieve the military’s operational energy security strategy.

When oil companies attack the RFS they unwittingly attack America.  When critics attack the Navy for trying to develop advanced biofuel for defense applications they undermine our long term national security.  And as Congress considers the budget, it should bear in mind that the U.S. spends $83 billion annually deploying our military to defend the Persian Gulf’s oil. Following the military’s lead in ending our nation’s overreliance on foreign oil is a responsible fiscal course that will pay long term dividends for our collective security.

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