Pipelines And Stovepipes

Federal officials look outside their own bureaucracies for alternatives to oil dependence.

If politics makes for strange bedfellows, then so too does a perceived national crisis. How else to explain the unlikely collection of federal officials attending a series of seminars aimed at sparking new ideas for addressing what President Bush has termed America's "addiction" to oil. Like members of a 12-step program meeting to share fears and coping mechanisms, federal officials from agencies as disparate as the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Defense Intelligence Agency have been meeting to discuss everything from energy conservation measures to the viability of renewable fuels.

What's notable about the meetings, which have taken place monthly since March in a hotel ballroom in Arlington, Va., after business hours, is that attendance is voluntary. That hundreds of bureaucrats, congressional aides, energy company executives, environmentalists, think tank analysts and consultants have willingly given up leisure time to hear speakers such as former CIA director James Woolsey extol the virtues of hybrid engines and investment banker Matthew Simmons argue that Middle East oil is running dry, says much about the thirst for substantive discussion in Washington about energy issues.

The seminar series, billed as an interagency learning opportunity, is titled, "Energy: A Conversation About Our National Addiction" and is organized by the Defense Department's offices of Force Transformation and the Undersecretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. The idea, says Robert D. Holzer, outreach director for the transformation office, was to get people talking across government. Whether their primary concerns are global warming, environmental conservation, economic vulnerability or national security, attendees share a common belief that the nation must reduce its dependence on foreign oil.

That a Pentagon office would sponsor such an initiative is not surprising-the Defense Department accounts for 1.7 percent of U.S. oil consumption and is the single largest buyer of oil worldwide, exceeding the purchase rates of many nations. But other federal agencies also are under pressure to reduce oil consumption. The 2005 Energy Policy Act requires that the federal government overall derive 7.5 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2013.

The Defense Department, which sucks up more than half of the 190.5 trillion BTUs (energy consumption is measured in British thermal units) the federal government consumes annually, has been particularly aggressive in pursuing renewable energy sources. According to data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Air Force in 2005 purchased more than 40 percent of the renewable power bought by the federal government. Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas, is the first military installation to be powered entirely by renewable energy-wind.

The Navy too is going green. Last year the National Biodiesel Board in Jefferson City, Mo., awarded the service top honors for its efforts to reduce its dependence on petroleum-based diesel fuel by using more fuels and additives made from alternative sources, such as soybean oil.

While all the services are exploring new technologies to reduce energy dependence, such efforts are thus far just a drop in the bucket. As Scott C. Buchanan, a strategist in the Office of Force Transformation, writes in a recent issue of Joint Forces Quarterly, "The business case for investing in new technologies is difficult to build because current costing methods do not make the actual end-to-end costs of fueling the force visible to decision-makers." Buchanan urges Defense officials to adopt accounting mechanisms that factor the cost of fuel consumption into operational planning and acquisition.

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