White House pushes biofuels on Navy over lawmaker objections

The Obama administration is putting another $62 million into its bet that biofuels can power the Navy, rankling many lawmakers who say the programs are wasteful.

In May, Senate Armed Services Committee members derided the $26-per-gallon biofuel and petroleum cocktail fueling the Navy’s “Great Green Fleet,” an aircraft carrier strike group testing green-energy fuels, during a markup of the 2013 Defense Authorization Bill.

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But with the Great Green Fleet setting sail last week for a six-week naval exercise in the Pacific Rim, the administration is rebuffing lawmakers and using the opportunity to continue its push for the military to use cleaner fuels.

On Monday, the administration announced two new biofuel research and development programs.

The Navy, Department of Agriculture and Department of Energy (DOE) will offer $30 million in matching funds to support “drop-in” biofuel research and development, an Energy spokesman told the press Monday.  

DOE also will contribute $32 million to a separate initiative for “early-stage, pre-commercial investments” in biofuel technology.

“Drop-in” refers to the ability to use the fuel with existing infrastructure and technology, making implementation easier and less expensive.

Large-scale adoption of that substitute fuel could help reduce the use of diesel and jet fuels in military and commercial transportation operations, DOE says. Funding for the drop-in effort comes from the Defense Production Act, which aims to boost national security through fostering domestic energy production.

The administration’s move is likely to attract criticism from lawmakers, though. Members from both parties have been less than enthusiastic about increasing the military’s reliance on biofuels.

Republican Sens. James Inhofe (Okla.) and John McCain (Ariz.) last month got bipartisan approval to tack on amendments to the Defense authorization bill that could restrain the Defense Department’s (DOD) use of biofuels.

Inhofe’s measure relieved the DOD from buying biofuels if they cost more than traditional sources. Petroleum cost about $3.60 per gallon Monday. McCain’s provision barred the department from building biofuel refineries unless authorized by law. Both passed with a 13-12 vote in the Armed Services Committee.

The administration, however, defended its emphasis on biofuels Monday as a national security issue.

The Defense Production Act “is a critical component of strengthening our national security, and energy is a national security issue,” U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said Monday in prepared remarks.  “Our reliance on foreign oil is a significant military vulnerability and it would be irresponsible not to address it.”

The Obama administration hopes developments in that energy technology could help achieve its goal of dropping oil imports by one-third by 2025. 

Of the $32 million DOE program, $20 million will go toward pilot- and demonstration-scale bio-refineries to help meet jet fuel and shipboard diesel standards. The remaining $12 million will fund up to eight projects “focused on researching ways to develop bio-based transportation fuels and products using synthetic biological processing,” DOE said.