Groups rushing to save green energy
By By: Austin Wright, Politico • Posted: Thursday, June 21, 2012
The Senate is expected to consider the defense authorization bill on the floor this summer — and the ensuing debate could be the last chance to block amendments that would severely restrict the Defense Department’s ability to purchase biofuels and other forms of alternative energy.
The House has already approved its version of the bill, including similar restrictive provisions for military biofuels.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a supporter of the biofuels programs, told POLITICO he expects a tough floor fight over the issue, which has become increasingly political since President Barack Obama cited it in his State of the Union address. “I expect there’d be an effort to restore that role for the military since it’s a security issue,” Levin said.
Many Republicans view the programs as a waste of money. In December, for instance, the Navy purchased 450,000 gallons of biofuels at $26.75 a gallon, POLITICO Pro reported. In comparison, the cost of petroleum is just a few dollars per gallon.
For those who support the initiatives, though, the high cost of biofuels is a necessary investment in a promising industry that could one day produce clean energy at a cost comparable or possibly cheaper than fossil fuels.
“Those who question why the Navy should be leading on energy should study their history,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in a statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The Navy has always led in new forms of energy, shifting from wind to coal-powered steam in the middle of the 19th century, from coal to oil in the early 20th century and pioneering nuclear power in the middle of the 20th century.”
The Democratic-controlled committee delivered a surprising blow to the Navy’s energy plans last month when it approved amendments — sponsored by Arizona Sen. John McCain, the committee’s ranking Republican, and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) — that would all but prohibit the Pentagon from building biofuel refineries or purchasing alternative fuels.
The amendments passed 13-12 during a closed-door markup — in part, because Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who plans to oppose the amendments on the Senate floor, was absent during the votes because she had to monitor a fire aboard the USS Miami, a nuclear-powered submarine that was docked at a Maine shipyard.
“Much to my surprise, the vote was called while I was gone,” Collins told POLITICO. “My position is clear that I’m in favor of biofuels.”
In addition, two Democrats — Sens. Jim Webb of Virginia and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, both from coal states — broke with their party to support the amendments.
“The Democratic majority shouldn’t have to rely on Republican votes to vote down Republican amendments,” said Andrew Holland, an energy expert with the American Security Project. “It got caught up with the whole range of other clean-energy issues. It caught up with things like Solyndra.”
The American Security Project and several left-leaning advocacy groups are gearing up for a green-energy push in anticipation of the looming Senate floor debate. They’re hoping to reclaim an issue that’s quickly morphing into a come-from-behind victory for conservatives.
The push will include televisions ads, white papers and panel discussions — all aimed at drawing attention to the national security implications of the military’s reliance on fossil fuels.
The Truman National Security Project’s Operation Free, for instance, plans to run commercials in five states, touting the Defense Department’s energy plans and emphasizing that the initiatives have the support of top Pentagon commanders, including Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
The five states — North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Arizona — were chosen based on several factors, including the prevalence of military bases and agricultural facilities that could benefit from investments in biofuels and whether lawmakers there are considered persuadable.
And conveniently, all but Arizona are key battleground states in the red-hot presidential campaign between Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney.
The group also plans to release a white paper touting the benefits of a greener military and has been reaching out to members of Congress, said spokesman Benjamin Lowe.
“We are very concerned and invested in this,” Lowe said. “The committee vote was absolutely disappointing.”
But, he added, “if the Senate is able to set us back on the right course and kill these amendments, I think it will send a pretty clear message to the House.”
Conservative groups are also gearing up for the green-energy showdown. Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action for America, said his think tank is monitoring the issue closely, ready to fend off efforts to strip the Republican amendments from the bill.
“We want to see what’s being spent in the defense budget being spent on what’s necessary for defense,” Holler said. “The military isn’t the right place to have [green-energy] spending. And if this comes up on the Senate floor, we’ll most certainly be engaged on the issue.”
The Pentagon’s green-energy initiatives have been led by the Navy, which has set a goal of having half of its total energy consumption from alternative sources by 2020. The Navy plans to sail its Great Green Fleet by 2016 — a strike group powered largely by biofuels.
“Our future work could be affected by the language in these bills,” said Vice Adm. Philip Cullom, deputy chief of Naval operations for fleet readiness and logistics.
“At the end of the day, this should not be a partisan issue,” he added. “I think sometimes it has been.”