In these pages July 23, J. David Patterson’s commentary harshly criticized the U.S. Navy’s research and development of advanced biofuels — renewable, domestically produced fuels that can be “dropped in” to military vehicles without retrofitting.
Despite the potential for these fuels to reduce our military’s petroleum dependence, critics like Patterson argue that the current early cost of these programs justifies terminating present and future investments.
But the price per gallon that so worries Patterson fails to convey the context and promise of the military’s investments. The cost in dollars of the fuels we use today is only part of the equation.
In responsibly planning for America’s security, the Defense Department must also account for the costs of uncertainty, and our access to oil is anything but certain. Our military leaders believe, as I do, that we must develop a solution before we face a crisis unprepared and that advanced American biofuels can be a part of that solution.
History teaches that military innovation has always been crucial to maintaining a dominant fighting force. American history is no different: GPS, night vision and the microchip have helped assure our military superiority on the battlefield.
All of these inventions were expensive initially, yet Congress and military leaders had the foresight to invest in emerging capabilities.
Had Congress prohibited DoD from exploring navigational aids more expensive than a compass a few decades ago, we would not have GPS. Advanced biofuels are yet another innovation that has the potential to enhance our military capabilities.
Given this historical context, there are two critical elements to understanding the Navy’s current efforts. First, Navy officials have repeatedly stated that the department will not purchase fuels in greater quantities than required for research and testing until they are cost-competitive with petroleum.
Thus far, the Navy has pledged to invest $170 million, along with equal shares from the Department of Energy and Department of Agriculture, for advanced biofuels development — 0.03 percent of the DoD budget.
Second, these fuels are continually coming closer to cost competitiveness with petroleum. As Patterson points out, between the beginning and end of 2009, the price of advanced biofuels dropped 84 percent. Since then, the price has fallen an additional 65 percent.
Advanced biofuels are still more expensive than petroleum-based fuels, but the Navy calculates that they will be cost competitive by 2020, if not sooner.
What nobody can calculate with reasonable certainty is how much a barrel of oil will cost a year from now, let alone a decade. But we do know that the volatility of the international oil market has degraded military readiness. DoD is the largest consumer of fuel in the world, spending more than $17 billion on petroleum fuels in 2011. With such massive fuel requirements, rises in the price of oil are incredibly costly.
For every $10 the price of a barrel of oil rises, DoD is left with a $1.3 billion budget shortfall. Because these shortfalls are impossible to predict, operations and maintenance budgets are drained to plug the holes. This means less training time for pilots, sailors and tankers alike.
Another certainty is that oil will be more expensive and difficult to secure in the future. Global demand for oil is rising at a breathtaking pace, with no sign of slowing down. While American demand has been very high but relatively static for some time, demand in China, India and the rest of the developing world is skyrocketing.
According to the Energy Information Administration, America’s oil consumption is expected to grow by 11 percent over the next two decades. During that same timespan, China’s oil consumption is expected to grow by 80 percent and India’s by 96 percent.
It is unrealistic to imagine that increasing the domestic production of oil, a globally priced commodity, could keep up with such dramatically rising demand.
And the situation would be far worse if Iran were to follow through with its threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, cutting off the Arabian Gulf’s supply of oil from the world market. With so much at stake, our military’s freedom of action requires the development of alternatives to power our ships, tanks and aircraft.
Every military leader learns to painstakingly identify and control for every possible variable when planning operations. In a domain as rife with uncertainty as war, our forces need fuel supplies they can count on at a predictable price.
Even if biofuels can never fully replace the petroleum we consume today, they can provide a measure of certainty to military strategists. Ending research into alternatives when the threat of our continued reliance on oil is so clear would be a misstep.
Mike Breen, vice president of the Truman National Security Project and a surrogate for the clean energy campaign Operation Free. As a captain in the U.S. Army, he served in Iraq and Afghanistan.