Celulosic ethanol, which is made from corn stover — the stalk, leaves, husk and cobs left after a harvest — is on the cusp of commercialization. And that means more than just an abundant, non-petroleum based and non-food sourced fuel; it also heralds the end of foreign oil dependence, and allows a new strategic outlook for America’s foreign policy and how we deploy our armed forces.
Two issues have driven US foreign policy for the last 60 years: stopping the Soviet threat and ensuring reliable access to energy to facilitate our economic growth. The end of the communist bloc freed up American foreign policy from that first driver; the end of our dependence on imported oil will similarly place us on entirely new strategic footing.
The US’s measured and diplomatic responses to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea also reflect a renewed focus on international law, and not a reactionary approach to a crisis manufactured by an energy-producing power. This change is in part possible because of the increasing energy independence of the US. The US now imports less than 40 percent of its oil, down from a peak of more than 60 percent in 2005.
Even more encouraging is that the percentage is expected to drop to 33 percent by the end of this year and continue to fall.
Large multinational companies like DSM have made significant investments in the production of commercial quantities of celluosic ethanol in the US. Many of these facilities will be located with corn ethanol plants as the industry transforms itself from first-generation corn ethanol to second-generation cellulosic ethanol. There is enough cellulosic biomass in the US to meet nearly all of our transportation fuel needs.
The US military, particularly the Department of the Navy, has been quick to recognize the strategic and tactical importance of advanced biofuels. As retired Maj. Gen. Mike Lehnert recently testified, “Most places that have fuel are not democracies. Our foreign policy is dictated by that dependency. Nobody knows better the cost than those young men and women who risk their lives to defend them.”
In December, the Navy and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced their “Farm to Fleet” program. It is geared to ensure the Navy makes biofuel blends part of its regular operational fuel purchases. As Navy Secretary Ray Mabus stated, “Energy is how our naval forces are able to provide a presence around the world. Energy is what gets them there and keeps them there.
“The Farm to Fleet initiative is important to developing a commercial market for advanced biofuel, which will give us an alternative fuel source and help lessen our dependence on foreign oil,” Mabus said.
As part of the Farm-to-Fleet program, the Navy will begin adding biofuel into its regular domestic purchases of about 77 million gallons of jet fuel (JP-5) and marine diesel (F-76) each year. Initial fuel contracts will be awarded in 2015. The Navy has indicated that by 2020, half of its fleet’s liquid fuel requirements will come from alternative sources. Currently, more than 15,000 Navy vehicles are powered by biofuel or electricity.
In addition, the Navy has indicated that its F/A-18 Hornets can run on biofuel.
The Pentagon, the US Energy Department and USDA plan to jointly spend $510 million on domestic biofuel programs over the next three years.
Beyond foreign policy interests, the rationale is obvious. For every $10 increase in a barrel of oil, DoD spends an additional $1.4 billion.
Our military recognizes that by investing in the future now, we as a nation can avoid higher costs later. These costs are not simply financial; more important are the human costs suffered by our servicemen and women each time they are deployed to protect shipping lanes and foreign oil interests, or are engaged in combat in foreign lands to defend our current way of life.
Having an abundant, renewable, domestically produced fuel alternative to foreign oil will enable our military and our country to drastically mitigate the tremendous human costs suffered during the last 60 years of securing American access to foreign oil.
But this is by no means a done deal. Entrenched interests, like the oil and gas lobby, are fighting this technological evolution. Lobbying groups representing foreign oil interests are in the midst of an intensive lobbying and PR campaign to destroy the Renewable Fuel Standard — the backbone of US biofuels policy — before the first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants come on line.
Celulosic ethanol is a disruptive technology that will end the oil industry’s century-long hold on America’s fuel supply. Ultimately, it will displace oil because it will be cheaper at the pump and greener to produce and burn. But the ramifications for US foreign and national security policy, and for the military, may be even more important to our nation’s future. ■
Hugh Welsh is the North American president of Royal DSM, a Dutch-based nutrition and biofuels company.