Senate blocks biofuel development in draft defense bill

Source: By Carlo Munoz, • Posted: Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Pentagon will have to work a little harder if it wants to eventually run its tanks, ships and planes on something other than fossil fuels, thanks to defense lawmakers in the Senate

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee effectively banned the department from buying alternative fuels or building facilities to manufacture it .

Those measures were rolled into the committee’s draft of the fiscal 2013 defense budget bill approved on Thursday. Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said he hopes to have the bill brought to the full Senate no later than July.

While committee members did strike a measure that would have absolved DOD from following certain, federally mandated alternative-fuel requirements, they took direct aim at a key Navy and Air Force initiative to begin running American fighter jets and warships on biofuels.

Specifically, it blocks DOD from spending any FY 13 dollars toward the “production or purchase of an alternative fuel if the cost of producing or purchasing the alternative fuel exceeds the cost of traditional fossil fuel,” according to the Senate draft.

The Senate mark also blocks the Pentagon planning, designing or constructing “a biofuels refinery or any other facility or infrastructure used to refine biofuels,” the Senate bill states.

However, the Senate bill states that DOD can use biofuel-fossil-fuel blends in their weapon systems if the department completes an “engine or fleet certification” showing those systems can run on blended fuels.

Both biofuel measures passed the committee by a one-vote margin.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) crossed party lines and voted against the failed measure to exclude DOD from federal alternative fuel requirements. But she did not vote on the biofuel language.

A Collins spokesman said she had to miss the vote to speak with the commander of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine after the USS Miami fire. He said Collins would support biofuels if the issue comes up on the Senate floor.

Military officials had argued that transitioning the U.S. military to alternative sources of fuel, such as biofuels, would save the Pentagon millions in energy costs.

The price DOD has paid to keep its vast arsenal rolling through over a decade of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan has become one of the biggest cost drivers in DOD’s increasingly shrinking budgets.

President Obama linked clean-energy initiatives to national security requirements during his State of the Union speech in January. Biofuel development has become a critical piece of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus’s long-term strategy for the sea service.

“I think that we cannot afford not to do this,” Mabus warned the Senate in March. “We cannot afford to be dependent on a worldwide commodity that has the price spikes and the price shocks that we have.”

But Republican lawmakers in both chambers took every opportunity to hammer away at Mabus and the White House on those plans during defense budget hearings earlier this year.

In March, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) warned the Navy’s effort would end in another “Solyndra situation,” referring to now-bankrupt solar energy company into which the White House sank $535 million in loan guarantees.

Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), a member of the House Armed Services subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, took Mabus to task in February over the service’s plans.

At the time, Forbes argued the Pentagon would be better off taking the billions it had put toward alternative energy and put it into buying more planes, tanks and ships.

“You’re not the secretary of the Energy. You’re the secretary of the Navy,” he told Mabus during the hearing.