Great Green Fleet Neither Great Nor Green?

In my recent interview with Tom Hicks, who is the Deputy Assistant Secretary to the Navy (Energy), he explained some of the Navy’s energy initiatives. One of those is to sail the “Great Green Fleet.” The goal is that in 2012 they will put a carrier strike group in local operations entirely on alternative fuels and then in 2016 they plan to deploy that strike group on all alternative fuels. By 2020, the goal is that 50% of all of the Navy’s energy consumption will come from alternative sources.

The reasons for these goals are obvious. The U.S. Department of Defense consumes more oil than any other organization in the world, and most of that oil comes from other countries. So this is an obvious vulnerability with respect to military preparedness.

But a new study argues that these goals won’t necessarily make the military better:

Study says greener military isn’t better military, DoD disagrees

Washington (CNN) — The Department of Defense has put a lot of money and effort into finding alternative fuels to replace petroleum-based fuels it uses now, but a new study concludes the military will not benefit from alternative energy research. The DoD “has spent hundreds of millions of dollars” on these testing and research programs, but for all the cost and time, there is little promised benefit over using fossil fuels, according to the congressionally-mandated study by the Rand Corp.

Much of the DoD alternative fuel research has focused on turning vegetable matter, like algae, soybeans or camelina seeds into fuel. The fuel will burn, but the study said that doesn’t make it useful. “Too much emphasis is focused on seed-derived oils that displace food production, have very limited production potential and may cause greenhouse gas emissions well above those of conventional petroleum fuels,” said James Bartis, lead author of the study and a senior policy researcher at Rand, a nonprofit research organization.

Tom Hicks disagreed with the study’s conclusions:

Tom Hicks, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for energy disagrees with the study on a number of fronts. “We have a different view than what authors share,” Hicks said Monday in an interview with CNN. Hicks said the study doesn’t take into account that camelina, which is basically a weed similar to the mustard plant, can be grown while fields are not being used for food crops,” Hicks said. “It can be used in rotation with wheat, and other grains and provide nutrients back into the soil.”

The study questioned the environmental benefits, and Hicks answered (as he did in my interview) that there are legal requirements that have to be met:

The study by Rand also questions whether the alternative fuels will be environmentally friendly. Hicks said, before the military starts using the fuels on a regular basis they have to meet ecological standards. “We are held by law … any barrel of oil that we replace, petroleum, has to have a life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions equal to or less than that.”

The law that Hicks is referring to is found within EISA 2007 (Energy Independence and Security Act). It is a provision called Section 526. What it says in general is that if petroleum fuel are replaced with an alternative fuel, the alternative must have equal to or lower overall greenhouse gas emissions. As Hicks indicated, this disqualifies coal-to-liquids (CTL) from being one of the fuels the military can use.

But here is what I think will happen. As 2012 approaches, it will become clear that the scale of the military’s oil usage is far beyond the scale that biofuels can be reasonably expected to provide. So I believe there will be more and more pressure to include CTL in the mix. Ultimately it will come down to a few options. The military can:

  1. Use a lot less fuel — in which case biofuels could play a significant role.
  2. Continue to rely on petroleum to fuel their fleet — probably the cheapest option but also keeping their supplies vulnerable.
  3. Decide that CTL can provide significant quantities of fuel and get Section 526 repealed.

I expect what will happen will be a combination of the three. I expect biofuels to play a role, albeit a much smaller role than the Navy envisions. Petroleum will continue to provide the lion’s share of fuel across all branches of military, but friendly countries like Canada will continue to be under pressure to develop their oil sands so the military can have access to more secure supplies. And finally, because the U.S. has large coal reserves, Section 526 will be repealed when the military feels the need is great enough, and we will start building CTL plants.

The environmental implications of oil sands and CTL are potentially very high, but if the choice ultimately comes down to whether the military has access to fuel, I can safely predict which option will be chosen.