Critics of the Navy’s research and development of advanced biofuels — renewable, domestically produced fuels that can be “dropped in” to military vehicles without retrofitting — argue that the early cost of these programs justifies terminating present and future investments.
But the price per gallon that so worries these critics fails to convey the context and promise of the military’s investments.
In responsibly planning for America’s security, the Defense Department must also account for the costs of uncertainty, and our access to oil is anything but certain. Our military leaders believe, as I do, that we must develop a solution before we face a crisis unprepared and that advanced American biofuels can be a part of that solution.
History teaches that military innovation has always been crucial to maintaining a dominant fighting force. Had Congress prohibited DoD from exploring navigational aids more expensive than a compass a few decades ago, we would not have GPS. Advanced biofuels are another innovation that has the potential to enhance our military capabilities.
Two elements are critical to understanding the Navy’s efforts:
First, Navy officials have stated that the department will not purchase fuels in greater quantities than required for research and testing until they are cost-competitive with petroleum. Thus far, the Navy has pledged to invest $170 million, along with equal shares from the Energy and Agriculture departments, for advanced biofuels development — 0.03 percent of the DoD budget.
Second, these fuels are continually coming closer to cost competitiveness with petroleum. Between the beginning and end of 2009, the price of advanced biofuels dropped 84 percent. Since then, the price has fallen an additional 65 percent. The Navy calculates that these fuels will be cost competitive by 2020, if not sooner.
What nobody can calculate with reasonable certainty is how much a barrel of oil will cost a year from now, let alone a decade. But we do know that the volatility of the international oil market has degraded military readiness.
DoD is the world’s largest consumer of fuel, spending more than $17 billion on petroleum fuels in 2011. With such massive fuel requirements, rises in the price of oil are costly. For every $10 the price of a barrel of oil rises, DoD is left with a $1.3 billion budget shortfall.
Because these shortfalls are impossible to predict, operations and maintenance budgets are drained to plug the holes. This means less training time for pilots, sailors and tankers alike.
Another certainty is that oil will become more expensive and difficult to secure. Global demand for oil is rising. According to the Energy Information Administration, U.S. oil consumption is expected to grow 11 percent over the next two decades, while China’s is expected to grow by 80 percent and India’s 96 percent.
It is unrealistic to imagine that increasing the domestic production of oil, a globally priced commodity, could keep up with such rising demand. And the situation would be worse if Iran were to follow through with its threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, cutting off the Persian Gulf’s supply of oil to the world market.
With so much at stake, our military’s freedom of action requires the development of alternatives to power our ships, tanks and aircraft.
Even if biofuels can never fully replace the petroleum we consume today, they can provide a measure of certainty to military strategists. Ending research into alternatives when the threat of our continued reliance on oil is so clear would be a misstep.
Mike Breen is vice president of the Truman National Security Project and a surrogate for the clean energy campaign Operation Free. As an Army captain, he served in Iraq and Afghanistan.