White House official: Congress ‘short-sighted’ on biofuels

Source: By Zack Colman, TheHill.com • Posted: Thursday, July 12, 2012

Congress “needs to get beyond short-sightism” that is stunting investment in and handcuffing Defense Department use of biofuels, a senior White House energy official said Wednesday at a conference in Washington, D.C.

Heather Zichal, the White House deputy assistant for energy and climate change, told attendees at an Energy Department conference on biomass that lawmakers have hurt the Defense Department’s efforts to diversify its fuel supply.

“The Defense Department isn’t making these investments in renewable energy and renewable fuels because it sounds good. They’re doing it because it makes sense from an operational and national security perspective,” Zichal said. “Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped some in Congress from putting forward short-sighted legislation that would undermine military’s ability to invest in alternative fuels.”

Zichal likely was referring to amendments to the defense authorization bill by Republican Sens. James Inhofe (Okla.) and John McCain (Ariz.) that got bipartisan approval in May. Inhofe’s measure relieved the DOD from buying biofuels if they cost more than traditional sources, while McCain’s provision barred the department from building biofuel refineries unless authorized by law. Both passed with a 13-12 vote in the Armed Services Committee.

Those measures were in response to reports that the Navy’s “Great Green Fleet” aircraft carrier strike group was testing a $26-per-gallon biofuel and petroleum mixture during its six-week naval exercise in the Pacific Rim.

Noting that a $1 dollar rise in gas prices would cost the Defense Department $30 million, Zichal said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has championed biofuels as an important part of the department’s energy mix. Preventing the department from accessing biofuels would exacerbate supply chain disruptions and exposure to petroleum market volatility, she said, citing Panetta.

“Some folks, especially here in Washington, are resistant to change even when it is so clearly needed,” Zichal said.

Zichal also touched on the role biofuels play in rural communities, calling that industry a job creator. Those programs have helped boost U.S. biofuels production more than 40 percent through the past three years, enabling the nation to produce more domestic biofuels than ever before, she said.

But some programs that support rural biofuels development are slated for cuts in the House farm bill. The bill contains only discretionary funding for rural energy programs and sheds $500 million from those programs compared with 2008 authorized levels.

“It’s not the right time to sit back as clean energy tax credits expire and workers get laid off,” Zichal said.