WASHINGTON, May 28, 2014 - An ongoing conflict over the Pentagon’s efforts to promote the development and acquisition of biofuels is resuming on Capitol Hill.
The Senate Armed Services Committee late last week approved a National Defense Authorization Act that makes no changes to existing language allowing the Department of Defense (DoD) to purchase biofuels. The panel’s action followed by less than a week the vote by their House counterparts to weaken – and likely kill the Defense Production Act’s Advanced Drop-In Biofuels Production Project.
The project is a DoD partnership with the private sector and the Departments of Energy and Agriculture, which have the lead roles for the federal government for biofuel feedstocks and production. The project works to accelerate the production of cost-competitive, advanced alternative fuels for both the military and commercial transportation sectors.
The House-versus-Senate skirmish has broken out in each of the last three years, with many Republicans in the GOP-controlled House contending the biofuel purchases are wasteful and represent the federal government’s attempt to determine winners and losers in the alternative fuels market.
But bipartisan support driven by farm state lawmakers in the Senate has successfully defended the program. Last year’s dispute was settled when a conference committee agreed to Senate language. During last week’s Senate markup, the only amendment that would have curtailed the military’s energy program came from Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas, and it was rejected in a bipartisan vote, 11-15.
In testimony before the Senate committee, Tom Morehouse, acting assistant secretary of Operational Energy Plans and Programs (OEPP), said the project aims to “further the flexibility of military operations through the ability to use multiple, reliable fuel sources.”
He said the department to date “has only purchased test quantities of biofuels for testing and certification purposes. These test fuels are often more expensive than commercially-available petroleum fuels because they tend to be produced at small, not-yet-commercial-scale facilities using novel conversion technologies”
However, Morehouse said, the project reflects a policy that has “formalized what was already the practice for all the military services: the department will not make bulk purchases of alternative drop-in replacement fuels unless they are cost competitive with traditional petroleum products.” He said that with the policy of restraint in place, “the department will continue to steward its alternative fuels investments towards the ultimate goal of enhancing the long-term readiness and capability of our joint force.”
When the program ran into some funding resistance on Capitol Hill in 2012, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stressed the importance of the program to U.S. farmers.
“It’s beyond me why we wouldn’t help this industry that will create higher farm income, more jobs in rural America, reduce the costs for consumers, satisfy commercial airlines . . . and make our military less reliant on a foreign supply of energy,” Vilsack said. “It is just astounding that people don’t understand that.”
Michael Breen, co-founder of Operation Free, a coalition of veterans and national security experts who contend that oil dependence and climate change pose threats to national security, said that by allowing the military’s biofuel development project to continue unimpeded, “the Senate made the right choice to maintain a civilian capability vital to our national security.
“As the largest institutional consumer of fuel in the world, our military is dangerously vulnerable to the volatile global oil market,” he said. “Domestically-produced alternatives improve American energy security, help supply our military around the world, and grow the economy here at home.”
An even longer-lasting congressional dispute over renewable fuels centers on Section 526 of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA). The section requires producers of high carbon synthetic fuels to lower their emissions before selling the fuel to the federal government. For the past several years, the House Armed Services Committee has moved to repeal Section 526, arguing that it prevents the military from purchasing less expensive alternative fuels, such as coal to liquid.
Proponents of the section, who have prevailed in Congress every year the section has come under attack, argue that its repeal will promote the bulk purchase by the military of high-emission fuels and divert funding for the Defense Department ‘s pursuit of cleaner and, ultimately, competitively priced alternatives, including biofuels. The Senate Armed Services Committee last week made no changes to Section 526.
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