Insiders: GOP won’t stop Pentagon’s green-energy push

The Navy's USS Princeton uses a 50-50 blend of advanced biofuel and traditional petroleum-based fuel. The Navy's USS Princeton uses a 50-50 blend of advanced biofuel and traditional petroleum-based fuel. United States Navy

Republicans in both the House and Senate this year have proposed cutting funds for alternative-energy programs in the defense authorization bill. But these efforts won’t gain much traction, National Journal’s Energy & Environment Insiders say.

More than 70 percent of Insiders say that the Defense Department’s move to use more biofuels will survive congressional opposition, arguing that lawmakers will have trouble saying no to the Pentagon.

“Despite the GOP’s overzealous pursuit to end any program that doesn’t line the pockets of big oil, this program likely survives because DOD doesn’t actually answer to Congress,” one Insider said.

In particular, arguing in favor of cutting military biofuels spending becomes an uphill battle when Pentagon officials, military veterans, and former lawmakers are saying that the spending is needed to save lives in war zones.

“The biofuel initiatives aren’t all about greener energy, but ways to meet energy requirements in the field that put fewer lives at risk (particularly in convoys). If biofuels can improve operations in the field, the work will continue,” one Insider said.

Pentagon officials have long argued that alternative energy can save both money—by reducing dependence on oil—and lives, because American fuel convoys are often targeted in attacks.

“The facts can’t be ignored—DOD and America are too dependent on foreign oil and it costs too much in blood and money,” one Insider said.

There’s also “electoral logic” to increased biofuels spending, another Insider said. Investment in biofuels, whether it comes from the Defense Department or anywhere else, plays well in farm states that could see new jobs and industry growth from these efforts.

In that regard, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has been a prominent part of a number of Pentagon biofuels announcements and regularly appears alongside Navy Secretary Ray Mabus touting the Navy’s new biofuel-powered “Great Green Fleet,” which saw its first successful demonstration during maritime exercises off the coast of Hawaii last week.

Although House lawmakers in May passed a provision in the defense authorization bill to prevent the military from purchasing alternative fuels that exceed the cost of “traditional fossil fuel,” and the Senate version included similar provisions, Insiders agree that such efforts are not likely to survive the final conference on the bill. 

“Congress can stop DOD only if it enacts a law. Enacting laws has not exactly been a signature strength of this Congress,” one Insider cracked.

Still, 29 percent of Insiders think that the military biofuels push will not succeed, especially at a time when the Defense Department is already facing significant cuts.

“It won’t survive at current levels,” one Insider said. “With rescission looming large at the Pentagon, an expensive program with political opposition won’t survive in full.”

Most Insiders said that military investments in renewable energy will spur similar investments in the private sector. Thirty-one percent of Insiders said that the Defense Department's investments are 'very likely' to encourage an alternative-energy push from industry. 

"DOD is validating the performance of replacement biofuels in practice and reducing the technical uncertainty surrounding their production processes. Both these developments will spur additional attention and work in the private sector," one Insider said. 

"The military had a track record of investing and developing nascent technologies that eventually become part of the mainstream consumer experience in this country. Think Internet, smartphones, etc.," another Insider added.

But the rest of the Insiders were split on what effect the Pentagon's efforts might actually have on the private sector—28 percent voted "somewhat likely," another 28 percent voted "not very likely," and 13 percent said "not at all."

"The petroleum market is close to $3 trillion per year," one Insider said. "If garnering a share of that market isn't incentive enough for a competitive alternative, then the military program won't make much difference." 

See the rest of the survey results at National Journal. 

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