Hagel backs Pentagon’s biofuels program, ban on dirtier fuels

Source: Annie Snider, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, January 31, 2013

Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel has come out carefully in support of the military’s efforts to turn to advanced biofuels — efforts that have drawn sharp criticism from Hagel’s fellow Republicans, who say they are a waste of limited defense dollars — as well as a controversial ban on the government purchase of carbon-intensive alternative fuels.

In a lengthy written response to policy questions posed by the Senate Armed Services Committee, before which he will appear later this morning, Hagel said he backs the military’s approach to certifying its equipment on the alternative fuels.

“It is prudent for the Department to engage in tests and demonstrations to confirm defense equipment can operate on a range of fuels,” he wrote. “However, as the Department allocates its limited resources to ensure it delivers necessary warfighting capability, it should only buy large volumes of these fuels when they are cost-competitive with petroleum products.”

This hews closely to the Pentagon’s pledge to test the fuels but not to purchase operational quantities until their price is competitive with — though not necessarily exactly the same as — that of petroleum.

But Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, could face questions about what qualifies as a “large quantity.” This became a sticking point between the administration and some Senate Republicans last year when the Navy spent more than $26 a gallon on 450,000 gallons of fuels made from cooking grease and algae to demonstrate its “Green Fleet.” The Navy classified the event as a technical demonstration, but critics, including new Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.), said it was less about science than about politics.

“The Obama administration’s aggressive push is too much too fast and it must be reined in,” Inhofe wrote in an op-ed piece in July. “It’s far more important to have a modern force of aircraft, ground vehicles and ships than an anemic one because funds are being directed to experimental technologies; our priority should be to have a strong, formidable fleet rather than a not-so-great Green Fleet.”

In his 112 pages’ worth of written answers leaked yesterday, Hagel also tentatively signaled his support for the Navy’s role in an interagency plan to invest $510 million in building commercial-scale biofuel refineries. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) attempted to block that program in last year’s defense policy bill, but his provision was stripped by a 54-41 floor vote (E&ENews PM, Dec. 29, 2012). It was replaced in conference with more mild language prohibiting the Navy from paying its remaining portion toward the project until the Departments of Agriculture and Energy pay their share (E&E Daily, Dec. 19, 2012).

“I believe the nation’s long-term energy security would benefit from a competitive, domestic renewable fuels industry,” Hagel wrote, “the Department has a long history of contributing to national innovation by innovating to meet the defense mission. As a major consumer of liquid fuels, the Department would benefit from that industry as well.”

He noted, though, that he has not specifically reviewed the program and that he was “not yet in a position to comment on the trade-offs between the value of this investment and other priorities of the Department.” He pledged to “examine the value of this investment carefully before authorizing it to proceed.”

Senate Republicans also shouldn’t expect any help from their former colleague in their efforts to repeal a 2007 ban on the government purchase of fuels with a broader greenhouse gas footprint than petroleum.

Opponents have said the ban, which was originally aimed at blocking government dollars from supporting coal-to-liquid fuels, restricts the military’s ability to buy the fuels it sees as most fit. House Republicans made a number of attempts to repeal it. But supporters say keeping the ban in place sends an important policy signal to producers of low-carbon alternative fuels.

Hagel said in his written responses that the provision has been “helpful” and “has not restricted the Department from purchasing whatever fuel it has needed to support military operations.”

If he is confirmed, the Pentagon chief hopeful said, his energy focus would be on efforts that bring both an operational benefit and efficiency, such as improving the energy performance of equipment and bases, reducing the vulnerability of supply lines, lightening troops’ loads and diversifying the department’s energy supplies.