Hands off our biofuels, Panetta tells Congress

In yet another Washington fight over energy policy, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta pushed back Wednesday against Congressional efforts to curtail the military push into alternative fuels.

The Obama administration and Republicans have scrapped over energy on a number of fronts, including the production tax credit for wind (supported by some Republicans, but not the party’s Congressional leadership); grant recipients of yesteryear; and even energy efficient light bulb standards, which was especially odd since the standards were put in place under President George Bush. Meanwhile, the Romney campaign continues to beat on the Solyndra carcass.

This latest skirmish, over biofuels in the military, got rolling in the House in early May when the Republican-controlled Armed Services Committee included a provision in the 2013 Defense Department budget that would ban the department from buying alternative fuels that are more expensive than conventional fuels. That’s just a clever way of cutting off the biofuel spigot, since the military is paying a premium for its biofuels, some derived from algae oil and animal fats, to help build a biofuels supply chain that’s in its infant stages.

Surprisingly, the Democratic-controlled Senate Armed Service Committee then went along with this House provision.

So in testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee Wednesday, Panetta told Congress to back off. He told the committee that the biofuels ban “could deprive commanders of the flexibility they need to meet tactical and operational needs, and make us more exposed to potential supply disruptions and future price volatility of petroleum products.”

Republicans, in particular, have pointed with outrage to the Navy’s $12 million purchase, announced late last year, of 450,000 gallons of biofuels from two companies: Solazyme, the South San Francisco-based startup that ferments algae to produce oil that can be refined into fuel; and Louisiana-based Dynamic Fuels, a Tyson Foods-Syntroleum joint venture that makes its fuel from used cooking oil and non-food-grade animal fats.

The plan is to use the fuels this summer in 50-50 blends with standard diesel and aviation fuel in ships and aircraft taking part in what the Navy calls the world’s largest international maritime war games, the Rim of the Pacific exercises off Hawaii.

In a post on the White House blog Wednesday, Sharon E. Burke, the assistant secretary who oversees operational energy plans and programs for the military, noted that military spends way, way more on conventional fuels than it does biofuels.

“Last year, DoD purchased 5 billion gallons of fuel at a cost of more than $15 billion to conduct worldwide military operations,” Burke wrote.

Burke argued, as Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has before hostile Congressional Republicans, that the department’s small investment in alternative fuels could, down the road, help ensure that the military’s equipment can operate on a wide range of fuels — just in case conventionals aren’t available, or become wildly costly.

“As one of the world’s largest consumers of petroleum fuels, DoD has an interest in the development of alternatives as a hedge against potential supply disruptions and future price volatility,” Burke wrote. “As a national security agency, we also have a strong interest in easing the economic and geostrategic pressures the global market exerts on all Americans.

Pete Danko, EarthTechling