YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Hundreds of veterans, about two dozen former flag officers and other notable officials threw their support behind Defense Department efforts to adopt alternative fuel sources in a letter written to Congress and President Barack Obama this week.
The letter, which includes signatures from former Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John Warner and retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, comes as lawmakers prepare to clash over amendments in the 2013 defense bills that would effectively scuttle the Navy’s plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on alternative fuels.
“The U.S. national security network is doing its part to break the military from the tether of imported oil, reduce mission performance risks, deny income to regimes hostile to America’s interests, and strengthen our economy and ensure that scarce budgetary resources are maximized,” read the letter, which was sponsored by the Pew Project on National Security, Energy and Climate.
Warner and others have been traveling to military bases across the country in recent months to drum up support for biofuels spending, which congressional opponents have attacked as unnecessary and wasteful.
Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus has championed the use of biofuels as one of his highest priorities since taking office in 2009, repeatedly stating that the service cannot depend entirely upon volatile global oil supplies and prices.
However, biofuel opponents scored a victory last week when the House passed an appropriations bill that eliminated a $70 million request for the construction of biofuel plants and refineries.
“While the Committee is supportive of alternative energy development, in these times of decreasing budgets, it does not seem prudent to stockpile funds so far ahead of need,” the House appropriations bill stated.
The Senate will likely delay its vote on the bill. The House has passed seven appropriations measures this year, while the Senate has not yet passed any, according to The Associated Press.
A much bigger fight over the future of alternative fuels will come later this year, when the National Defense Authorization Act comes to a floor vote in the Senate.
The passed House version and the pending Senate version of the authorization act both contain amendments that would effectively end alternative fuel spending by barring the Defense Department from buying fuel that costs more than “traditional fossil fuel.”
Although Mabus and other supporters say that alternative fuel costs will go down as volume increases and the industry develops, current prices are much higher.
At nearly $27 per gallon, the biofuel purchased for a demonstration of the “Great Green Fleet” in Hawaii this month cost roughly eight times as much as conventional fuel, according to service figures.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other lawmakers in the House and Senate blasted the demonstration’s cost during committee hearings earlier this year, and said they saw little to suggest that alternative fuel would ever be cost-competitive with oil and gas.
Opponents have also cited studies that question whether some types of alternative fuels would damage military equipment.
Despite the congressional pushback, Mabus told Stars and Stripes on July 16 that he had no immediate plans to change his goals: a carrier strike group powered with half biofuels by 2016, and 50 percent of all Navy fuel coming from alternative sources by 2020.
“I know we’ve got a lot of support in Congress,” Mabus said during a visit to Yokosuka Naval Base.
Two days later on Capitol Hill, several senators said they believed they could defeat the amendment barring alternative-fuel spending, which passed by one vote in the Senate Armed Services Committee in June.
“We have bipartisan support to undo the work of the committee,” said Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), according to Reuters.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, also voiced his support for changing the bill’s language prior to a floor vote, the Reuters story said.
Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) co-wrote a June 15 editorial for Politico stating their intentions to roll back the amendment.
“We hope to correct that short-sighted mistake when the bill reaches the Senate floor,” they said.
Should the amendments barring alternative fuel purchases pass in one version of the bill but be changed or deleted in the other, it would be up to a conference committee to reconcile the dueling House and Senate versions.