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House Armed Services Committee Proposes Ban on Biofuels

Just one month before the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) in Hawaii, the world's largest international maritime exercise, the biofuels industry has encountered a possible roadblock. The House Armed Services Committee issued its report on next year's Pentagon budget, which inclues a measure that would exclude the development and purchase of biofuels that cost more than traditional fossil fuels.

The exclusions, however, do not eliminate all alternative fuels. Congressmen also recommended the exemption of the Defense Department from previous restrictions that prevent federal agencies from buying fuels that are more polluting than conventional fossil fuels. This would allow the military to use the Fischer-Tropsch method, which generates gas to liquid fuel from coal and natural gas — and also emits more carbon than burning refined crude oil.

The House is beginning deliberations on the Pentagon Budget Bill, H.R. 4310, today. The White House has issued a veto threat for the bill as it stands in a memo that states it "would further increase American reliance on fossil fuels, thereby contributing to geopolitical instability and endangering our interests abroad."

The U.S. military has been a major supporter in the advancement of the biofuels industry, and the Navy plans to unveil its “Green Strike Force” at this year’s RIMPAC. It purchased 450,000 gallons of cooking oil- and algae-based drop-in biofuel for jets and vessels in a contract with Dynamic Fuels to prepare for the exercise. This purchase was seen as a sign of dropping costs for biofuels, and bolstered the industry to keep moving. The biofuels will be mixed in a 50/50 blend for the exercise, which costs around $15 per gallon, and the Navy hopes to achieve a full-scale deployment in 2016. 

The Navy has also pledged to use 50 percent alternative fuels by 2020 — a goal that could be hindered from this proposal as it is unlikely that costs will equate to fossil fuels in the near future.

The Committee argues that with a shrinking defense budget, military focus should be on creating more vessels, supplies, and other necessities, rather than dumping money into a new, expensive industry.

“I understand that alternative fuels may help our guys in the field, but wouldn’t you agree that the thing they’d be more concerned about is having more ships, more planes, more prepositioned stocks,” said Rep. Randy Forbes during a February hearing with Navy secretary Ray Mabus. “Shouldn’t we refocus our priorities and make those things our priorities instead of advancing a biofuels market?”

Mabus countered that if we don’t have a domestic supply of fuel, it would leave us vulnerable and we wouldn’t be able to power our vessels and other equipment. 

“We simply buy too much fossil fuels from places that are either actually or potentially volatile, from places that may or may not have our best interests at heart,” Mabus told the Senate Subcommittee on Water and Power in March. “We would never let these places build our ships, our aircraft, our ground vehicles, but we do give them a say on whether those ships steam, aircraft fly, or ground vehicles operate because we buy so much energy from them.”

Mabus also noted that each time the price of oil goes up by one dollar per barrel, it costs the Navy $31 million — all the more reason to create a stable fuel supply here in the U.S. And though oil prices aren’t expected to drop any time soon, biofuel prices are dropping with each new advancement. 

Said Tom Todaro, a leading biofuel entrepreneur whose companies have supplied the military with tens of thousands of gallons of fuel made from mustard seeds, to Wired, “We’d be years behind if it wasn’t for the military.”

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