Fully Fueled

By John Liang / March 2, 2011 at 3:57 PM

The House has rejected an attempt by a freshman Republican to cut funds for Defense Department alternative energy research in fiscal year 2011, despite the lawmaker's citation of a recently released think-tank study that drew criticism from the Navy and others for arguing against DOD continuing large-scale research in the near-term on certain biofuels, Defense Environment Alert reports this week. Further:

The House's vote on the measure comes as a key Democratic appropriator plans to push "more aggressively" to fund energy efficiency measures and alternative fuel projects at DOD in the FY12 defense appropriations bill, according to a spokesman for Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA), who is ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, and also serves as ranking member on the defense appropriations subcommittee.

A spokesman for Dicks sees the attempt by freshman GOP Rep. Mike Pompeo (KS) to cut funds from DOD alternative energy research as "largely symbolic" and doubts there will be a trend toward cutting such defense programs despite the findings by the think tank RAND that certain biofuels such as hydrotreated renewable oils derived from seeds and algae do not hold promise right now to meet military fuel needs. RAND suggested that DOD in the near-term drop large-scale testing and certification of such oils.

Additionally, the current price of oil at around $100 a barrel -- higher than when the RAND report was released Jan. 25 -- makes it doubtful there will be as large an appetite to cut energy accounts at the moment, the Dicks spokesman says. He points out that higher oil prices spell greater savings attributable to biofuels when they are used to replace a percentage of conventional petroleum.

During floor debate Feb. 15 on the House version of the full-year FY-11 continuing appropriations bill, Pompeo sought to cut $115 million from DOD's alternative energy research budget, saying President Obama has billions of dollars aimed toward such research in other parts of the budget and therefore it is not needed in the Pentagon budget and added it would not benefit military troops, citing the recent RAND report. RAND released a study "talking about alternative energy research in the defense budget and they concluded it was not helping our soldiers, our sailors, our airmen, and our fighters," he said.

The RAND report dismissed hydrotreated renewable oils as a fuel to research on a large scale in the short term, saying they are not an affordable or cleanly produced option for the military, citing problems over commercial viability, including affordability and lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, RAND generally endorsed Fischer-Tropsch (FT) fuels as a promising near-term alternative fuel for the military. FT fuels, which often are derived from coal or a mixture of coal and biomass, are controversial because of the high GHG emissions from the use of coal.

A high-level Navy energy official, however, has blasted the report, saying it was poorly researched, contained errors and would not convince the Navy to change its course in pursuing biofuels as it tries to find alternative sources to fuel half its needs by 2020 (Defense Environment Alert, Jan. 31).

Democrats, including Appropriations Ranking Member Dicks, as well as long-time alternative energy advocate GOP Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (MD), objected to Pompeo's amendment, which failed on a vote of 207-223.

On the floor, Dicks argued that fuel transport has been a high-risk endeavor in Iraq and Afghanistan, with reducing the demand for operational fuel being the single best way to lower that risk. But the Defense Science Board (DSB), a key advisory body to DOD, has found DOD lacks the ability to make a decision on the best way to do that. Rather, the DSB recommended increasing investments in energy efficient and alternative energy technologies on a level commensurate with their operational and financial value, Dicks said. The alternative energy research DOD conducts is the type of research the DSB recommended, he noted.

"The Defense Subcommittee has made a conscious and dedicated effort to advance the Department's efforts, searching for better ways to reduce consumption and alleviate the costly and complicated logistics," Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (D-NJ) said in remarks opposing the amendment. Pompeo's amendment "however, would unnecessarily erase that progress and further the Department's dependence on fossil fuels."