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Despite fracking boom, US military still looks to biofuel over natural gas

A sailor fills up a government vehicle with compressed natural gas in this 2005 file photo. Despite the boom in natural gas usage in the States, the military has only a few hundred vehicles that run on the fuel.

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — The drilling boom created by hydraulic fracking has led to an explosion of natural gas vehicles on U.S. highways, but the U.S. military has been slow to jump on the bandwagon.

U.S. natural gas production has increased by more than 30 percent since 2005, and major U.S. firms are taking advantage. Shipping company UPS Inc. has begun to convert its transport fleet to run on natural gas, and Citigroup Inc. predicts that at least one-third of the U.S. commercial truck fleet could be running on the fuel by 2015.

The reason? Natural gas currently costs up to $2 less per gasoline gallon equivalent, according to the Natural Gas Vehicles for America website.

But the military doesn’t seem overly interested in catching the natural gas wave — at least when it comes to transport vehicles.

Although there are some 120,000 natural gas vehicles on American roads, the military has only a few hundred non-tactical military vehicles powered by either compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), according to officials.

Instead, the four armed services have taken a wait-and-see approach to natural gas while pouring much of their green energy efforts in seemingly less-promising energy sources, such as biofuels.

“We are in the role of technology watcher as we follow (natural gas research) developments in the civilian world and look for ways to leverage those efforts for our needs,” according to Kevin Geiss, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for energy.

There are a multitude of reasons keeping the services from running to the showroom floors for new natural gas vehicles, including the lack of fill-up stations.

Matthew Bourke, an Army public affairs officer, said while the Army has 65 non-tactical vehicles fueled by natural gas, there’s no current research aimed at using the technology in tactical vehicles, such as tanks.

“There are no CNG (compressed natural gas) vehicles available that are suitable for vehicle requirements in a deployed area and no distribution or CNG refueling infrastructure in an expeditionary environment,” Bourke said.

Tactical vehicles follow the single-battlefield-fuel principle whereas non-tactical vehicles and equipment use bulk petroleum products that are available and supported locally, he said.

“Deployed CNG assets would require separate deployable CNG storage, refueling and manpower to maintain the infrastructure,” he said.

The Air Force’s Geiss echoed those sentiments.

When it comes to ground transport, the cheap cost of natural gas needs to be balanced against the fact that there are only a few natural-gas-powered vehicles for sale, he said, and most are medium- or heavy-duty trucks and buses that can be refueled at central or strategically placed stations.

In contrast, some biofuel-powered vehicles also operate on conventional fuel, and biodiesel can be blended for use in conventional engines, he said.

The Navy operates 300 non-tactical CNG vehicles ashore and it’s testing a new natural gas bus in Washington, D.C., according to Kenneth Hess, a spokesman at the chief of Naval Operations Energy and Environmental Readiness Division.

“The majority of the Navy’s non-tactical vehicles, including natural gas-powered vehicles, are purchased from companies that provide similar vehicles to the private sector,” he said. “If industry can produce those vehicles at lower cost, reduce maintenance requirements, get better mileage, use fewer natural resources to build them, and/or achieve lower emissions, those vehicles and the technology/processes behind them will continue to be of interest to the Navy.”

However, the Navy sees little value in using natural gas as a fuel for its ships or planes.

Hess cited the cost of retrofitting equipment, safety concerns and relatively low energy density as reasons for not fueling the fleet with natural gas.

“All of our aircraft require an energy dense liquid fuel,” he said. “Natural gas has not been used as a fuel source for Navy ships, and there are no current plans for its use to power Navy ships.”

Another thing that cuts against using natural gas in ships is the role of conventional fuel in maintaining vessels’ stability — something that wouldn’t be possible using natural gas unless the ships were retrofitted at considerable cost, he said.

The lower energy of natural gas would mean ships powered by it needed to carry as much as 50 percent more fuel than normal, he said.

“Since we realistically cannot increase the size or storage capacity of our existing ships, we would be sacrificing operational capability while increasing risk,” Hess said.

And while the DOD has been slow to join the natural gas trend, the department seems to be leading the way in biofuels research.

The Navy operates more than 15,000 alternative-fuel vehicles powered by biofuel and electricity, for example, and the DOD — along with the Energy and Agriculture departments — plan to jointly spend $510 million on domestic biofuels over the next three years in a White House-backed initiative. Last year, for example, the Navy spent $12 million on 450,000 gallons of biofuel for ships participating in the Rim of the Pacific war games off Hawaii.

The rationale for using alternative fuels to power the military is obvious: For every $10 increase in a barrel of oil, the Defense Department spends an additional $1.4 billion.

robson.seth@stripes.com

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