Sen. Inhofe under fire on biofuels

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) is coming under fire for hypocrisy from supporters of a Navy biofuels testing program for opposing the initiative after wresting earmarks for a similar effort a decade ago.

Inhofe has accused the Navy of wasting taxpayer money by paying $26 per gallon for biofuel used in the Navy’s “Great Green Fleet” program.

Critics of Inhofe’s position say the Republican senator was for the program before he was against it — as long as it benefited his state.

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They note that Inhofe secured a $2.3 million defense contract for Tulsa, Okla.-based Syntroleum Corp. in 2006 so that the company could test a $22-per-gallon liquid natural-gas jet fuel for B-52s at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City as well as several other locations. In today’s dollars, that fuel would cost $25 per gallon.

“Ten years ago, James Inhofe stood up and said that it was important to give the military all they require to train and fight for America,” said Ben Lowe, a spokesman with Operation Free, an advocacy group that supports the Navy biofuel program and argues it would reduce U.S. dependence on oil.

“Today he is leading efforts to stop programs our military leaders say are critical to our national security,” Lowe said.

Inhofe’s office argues there’s a difference between Syntroleum’s contract, which was also used to test fuel on C-17s, and the Navy program. It said the funding from 2006 was focused on research and development, while the Navy program goes way beyond that.

It is “disingenuous” to compare the two programs, Inhofe spokesman Jared Young told The Hill on Monday. The 104,000 gallons bought from Syntroleum for $2.3 million was used for research and development to strike the right alternative fuel to conventional fuel balance for the Air Force jet fuel. That was tested at several locations, while the 450,000 gallons of biofuels purchased for $12 million went to one Navy demonstration, he explained.

On top of that, Tulse-based Syntroleum was also involved with the Navy program. It partnered with Tyson Foods to make the biofuel used in the Navy program, Young pointed out, so Inhofe's argument against the Navy biofuels project came despite the involvement of a company from his state. 

Young said Inhofe has consistently supported research and development of alternative fuels for military use, but funds for the Navy program came from the operations and management budget rather than research and development. Given budget cuts through sequestratio that could come to the operations and management budget, Inhofe thought it was improper to use funds for what should have been research and development. 

“The Navy says they are still in R&D stage, yet fueled its entire fleet and put civilians and journalists on these ships for their public relations demonstration which shows they have already tested the 50/50 blend to make sure it would work,” Young said.

Andrew Holland, senior fellow for energy and climate with the American Security Project, called Inhofe’s view an “arcane argument over semantics and budget codes.” The Navy has often said it would not buy the biofuels until they become cost competitive, he told The Hill on Monday.

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) is working behind the scenes to rally support for an amendment to the defense spending bill that would explicitly permit the Navy to buy biofuels. That would render moot an Inhofe amendment to the bill forbidding the Navy from buying biofuels if they cost more than conventional fuels.

The nation’s financial situation has worsened since Inhofe lauded the Syntroleum contracts, Young said, though he noted the nation still carried $8.5 billion of debt when Defense tested Syntroleum’s fuel. He also pointed to looming defense cuts as a reason for greater scrutiny of the biofuels program.

Promoting the biofuels program is another example of the Obama administration “advancing green energy at the taxpayer expense,” Young said.

The Obama administration has couched its defense of the Navy biofuels testing program on national security grounds. 

When Inhofe’s amendment to the Defense spending bill passed in May, his office released a statement that said: “I pledge to continue working with my colleagues to ensure that President Obama’s far left agenda does not impact military readiness and our national security.”

But in 2002, Inhofe applauded the awarding of contracts to Syntroleum on the grounds that it would bolster national security by diversifying energy sources.

"Tulsans can be very proud that Syntroleum's advanced technology is now poised to make a significantly increased contribution to military readiness and national security,” Inhofe said in 2002.

This story was corrected at 10:58 to reflect Syntroleum's involvement in the Navy biofuels project, and to point out that the 2006 Syntroleum defense contract was used for testing liquid natural-gas jet fuel for B-52s and C-17s at several locations.