Senate passes Pentagon bill preserving biofuels programs

Source: Annie Snider, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Senate yesterday evening passed a $631 billion defense policy bill that would preserve the military’s ability to purchase more costly biofuels, authorize $150 million in energy conservation projects and make a handful of reforms to the Defense Department’s environmental, energy and nuclear security policies.

The unanimous 98-0 vote on S. 3254 caps off a victory for biofuels supporters, who last week successfully stripped two provisions from the bill aimed at reining in the military’s biofuels efforts.

After six months of battle over the issue, the Senate voted 62-37 last Tuesday for Sen. Mark Udall’s (D-Colo.) amendment overturning a provision from Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) that would have blocked the military from buying alternative fuels that cost more than traditional petroleum fuels (E&ENews PM, Nov. 28).

And on Wednesday, North Carolina Democrat Sen. Kay Hagan successfully attached an amendment undoing Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) provision to prevent the Navy’s investment in a $510 million interagency program to build commercial-scale biofuel refineries by a 54-41 vote (E&ENews PM, Nov. 29).

“Our military is on the cutting edge technologically, but much of our fighting capability relies on foreign fossil fuels and decades-old power systems,” Udall said last week. “That dependence has very real human and economic costs.”

His amendment’s “strong bipartisan vote affirms that we should allow our military leaders to continue to develop and use advanced alternative fuels in order to bring down costs and improve mission capabilities,” he said.

Differences to resolve in conference

The bill now heads to conference, where significant differences with the House-passed bill will have to be hammered out.

The House version of the bill contained no provision on biofuel refineries, but it did include mirror language to Inhofe’s aimed at blocking more costly purchases of alternative fuels, which could prove to be a sticking point.

Moreover, the two bills were roughly $3 billion apart when the Senate’s version passed out of committee, and the White House has threatened to veto the bill over changes to the Pentagon’s proposed budget, as well as language on Guantanamo Bay detainees.

Other top-line points of contention include plans for an East Coast missile defense site in the House bill, as well as several social policies Democrats oppose, including a ban on same-sex ceremonies on military bases and a provision to prevent military chaplains from being punished for opposing same-sex marriage.

Another hot-button issue apt to crop up in conference negotiations is a 2007 ban on government purchases of fuels with a larger greenhouse gas footprint than that of traditional petroleum. The ban, known as Section 526 for the provision of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act that created it, has been a consistent target this year of House Republicans, who have been working to attach it to every appropriations bill. The ban is most important as it applies to the Defense Department, which is by far the largest government purchaser of fuel.

The House version of this year’s defense bill includes a provision to repeal the ban. A similar provision narrowly failed in Senate committee by a 13-13 vote.

Last year, the chambers entered conference negotiations from similar positions; the House moved to repeal the ban, but the Senate did not. The difference was one of the final ones to be resolved.

Renewable energy, climate provisions

Congress has consistently nudged the Defense Department forward on renewable energy and energy conservation through defense policy bills in recent years, and the Senate-passed bill continues that trend.

After a Government Accountability Office report earlier this year found that DOD lacked effective rules for guaranteeing that it gets the best deal for the renewable energy generation projects it is aggressively pursuing on its bases, the Senate bill would require that the military update its guidance on how to choose the best financing approach (E&ENews PM, April 4).

The bill also tweaks the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to allow geothermal heat pumps to meet federal renewable energy requirements. The technology holds great cost-savings potential for the military, and the Air Force in particular has pursued it, but it has not previously counted toward DOD’s green energy goals (E&ENews PM, Nov. 30).

Democrats attempted to force a vote on climate change in the defense bill with an amendment from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) calling for the United States to “assess, plan for, and mitigate the security and strategic implications of climate change,” but the amendment did not end up receiving a vote.

DOD has named climate change an “accelerant of instability” and included consideration of it in key strategy documents. This has riled Republicans, who blasted the administration for linking climate change and national security in their party platform earlier this year (Greenwire, Aug. 29).

Other environmental provisions

Another environmental amendment that failed to get a vote was one from Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) that would have continued restrictions on DOD’s use of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building standards until a report on green building standards could be completed. Wicker is concerned that LEED standards treat American wood products unfairly and penned a provision in last year’s bill that originally instituted the restrictions.

Speaking on the Senate floor yesterday afternoon, Wicker said that although his amendment did not make it into the bill this year, he was satisfied that the current language will ensure that DOD has “green building standards that save energy and serve the purposes of national defense and don’t tilt toward one industry or another.”

Additionally, after years of congressional hand-wringing over Chinese export controls of rare earth elements, the Senate bill includes an amendment creating a U.S. critical minerals policy. It calls on the administration to encourage and coordinate efforts aimed at the domestic supply of materials important to the nation’s economy and defense.

A related amendment, found in both the House and Senate versions of the legislation, mandates the Pentagon to prepare a report on the feasibility of recycling rare earth elements from fluorescent light bulbs (E&E Daily, Dec. 4). The House version of the DOD bill also includes a provision to streamline Pentagon evaluation of critical materials and restructure the Strategic Materials Protection Board.

The Senate bill also includes a McCain amendment that would give priority to the Forest Service and the Coast Guard to acquire excess aircraft from the Air Force after it has been deemed surplus equipment. The language keys off a bill introduced by Sens. McCain, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) this summer to transfer 14 excess C-27J Spartan aircraft from DOD to the Forest Service, which uses air tankers to drop flame retardants to slow the spread of wildfires (E&E Daily, July 26).

The upper chamber’s defense bill also contains two provisions related to management of the embattled National Nuclear Security Administration, a semiautonomous agency within the Energy Department that manages the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile.

The administration suffered a major embarrassment this summer when an 82-year-old nun and a pair of her pacifist friends broke into one of the nation’s top nuclear weapons sites. The incident drew attention to a pair of provisions in the House’s defense bill, one of which would transfer oversight of nuclear weapons workers from DOE to NNSA, and another of which would have NNSA establish a performance-based system for the management and oversight of contractors — a change that the Project on Government Oversight characterized as giving the labs “the ability to self-report and self-regulate their performance” (E&E Daily, Sept. 13).

A provision from Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) in the upper chamber’s bill takes on concerns about NNSA management, emphasizing the need for external and independent oversight of administration. An amendment from Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.), meanwhile, would take a step toward further separating NNSA from DOE oversight by establishing a congressional advisory panel on revising the governance structure of NNSA.

Finally, the Senate bill moves to address potential health impacts from burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan by requiring DOD to draft guidance on when the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry should assess environmental exposures at military bases. It also mandates that DOD establish procedures for tracking and documenting how the agency’s findings are responded to and set forth a framework for identifying service members and civilians who may have been exposed.