Is the U.S. military establishment’s goal of greatly reducing its dependence on foreign oil through use of biofuels and other petroleum alternatives a realistic, although costly, positive step, or just another government boondoggle to slurp up taxpayer money?
As the point person for the administration’s “Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future,” Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, a former Mississippi governor and U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, has been the target of criticism by those who contend initial expenditures have been unconscionably high.
The program, which directs the Departments of Agriculture, Energy, and Navy to work together to advance a domestic industry capable of producing drop-in biofuel substitutes for diesel and jet fuel, hasn’t come cheap. A 2010 Navy purchase of biofuel from algae to be used in military tests is reported to have cost $424 per gallon. In 2011, purchases of other biofuels averaged better than $25 per gallon.
While $25 is still many times the military’s cost of a gallon of traditional fuel, the cost per gallon had been steadily coming down.
The Navy has announced its intention to invest up to $510 million over the next three years in partnership with the private sector to produce advanced drop-in biofuels for military and commercial use, ranging from high performance fighter jets to commercial trucks and airliners.
“The Navy has always led the nation in transforming the way we use energy,” Mabus said. “This is not work we can afford to put off to another day.”
The Defense Logistics Agency has contracted to purchase 450,000 gallons of advanced drop-in biofuel, the largest single purchase in government history.
The biofuel will be mixed with aviation fuel or marine diesel fuel, with no engine modifications required. The Navy has conducted testing on a wide range of aircraft, including the jets flown by the famed Blue Angels, as well as on various types of boats and ships.
The Air Force is ahead of schedule in its program for certifying biofuels usage in more than 40 of its aircraft models by 2013. It spends nearly $7 billion per year just for aviation fuel — representing over 50 percent of oil consumption by all U.S. government agencies. It has done tests with a 50/50 blend of biofuel produced from camelina plants and jet fuel, with “absolutely no noticeable difference” in performance, an Air Force spokesman said.
Critics’ caviling aside, all progress comes with cost. Computers once were room-size and cost millions; now they’re WalMart loss-leaders. Cell phones started out brick size and cost a fortune; now they’re the most ubiquitous devices on the planet.
Petroleum-based fuels will likely continue to be the mainstay of military and commercial uses for years to come. But by making an investment in alternatives, costly though they may be on the front end, the military is taking a step toward insulating these critical defense services from the uncertainties of foreign oil.