Administration touts ‘Great Green Fleet’ test exercises with biofuels

As the Navy concluded test exercises with biofuel-powered planes and vessels near Hawaii Thursday, top Obama administration officials hit back against criticism that the endeavor was a waste of taxpayer dollars.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said the “Great Green Fleet” test exercises for the first time proved that aircraft carriers, FA-18 jets and other equipment could run on advanced biofuels without any modifications — a major milestone in his quest to find an alternative to fuels derived from foreign oil.

The initiative proved “we can increase our combat capability” and “we can do it with absolutely no change in the equipment we have today,” Mabus said in a conference call with reporters.

“It was worthwhile to show that biofuels can compete and can be used in every single thing that we do in the Navy,” Mabus added. “Everything before now has been a test. This shows that we can use biofuels and other alternative energies in an operational manner.”

Critics have blasted the planned exercises as too costly, especially as the Defense Department heads toward congressionally mandated budget cuts. In preparation for the carrier strike test, the Navy spent $12 million buying 450,000 gallons of alternative fuels, which works out to just under $27 per gallon. Once blended 50-50 with petroleum, the final cost settled around $15 per gallon.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., accused the Obama administration of trying to foist a “green agenda” on the Pentagon.

The Department of Defense “has been forced to drastically cut its personnel, the number of brigade combat teams, ships, fighters and aircraft, and it has had to eliminate or postpone critical military modernization programs,” Inhofe said. “Thanks to President Obama (the Defense Department) can’t afford business as usual, yet they are being coerced into spending $27 a gallon.”

Thomas Pyle, president of the industry-funded Institute for Energy Research, has asked congressional leaders to investigate the Navy exercise, which he said made no sense “with huge reductions in resources for national defense already under way.”

During the test exercises Wednesday, foreign military leaders and top Pentagon brass looked on as helicopters and other aircraft running on advanced biofuels landed on and lifted off from the U.S.S. Nimitz aircraft carrier. Electronic attack aircraft were refueled with the advanced biofuels in air, and a separate refueling took place at sea.

The advanced biofuels used to power the Navy vessels came from a mix of algae and cooking oil, sold by San Francisco-based Solazyme and Louisiana-based Dynamic Fuels, a joint venture of Tyson Foods and Syntroleum Corp.

Mabus also signed a statement of cooperation with the Royal Australian Navy to guide future collaboration on using biofuels for military operations, which he described as essential to blunting the costs of price spikes and supply fluctuations in foreign oil.

“The Navy is committed to pursuing alternatives to foreign oil and the whole Navy believes it is critical to our combat capability and to our national security,” Mabus said. “Our reliance on foreign oil is a very significant and very well recognized military vulnerability, and we are trying to address that vulnerability.”

Mabus noted that every $1 jump in the price of oil translates into $30 million in additional costs for the Navy — and that the service may be forced to pare the size of its fleet or reduce operations to pay for fuel amid oil price spikes.

White House energy and climate change adviser Heather Zichal told the reporters that criticism of the Great Green Fleet was “short-sighted.”

“We cannot keep what we’ve done in the past,” she said. “We can’t be timid about embracing new forms of energy like biofuels.”

For the biofuels industry, Mabus’ plans to wean the Navy off conventional supplies create a potentially lucrative marketplace _ powering the Pentagon’s ships, aircraft and tanks. Supporters note that while the cost of advanced biofuels may be high now, those would drop as demand and production ramped up.

Following the successful test exercise, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the next step is fostering a domestic biofuels industry that is creating advanced fuels using non-food feedstocks, such as inedible plant parts.

“The Navy now has proven that this fuel works,” Vilsack said. “Now the question is how can we create an industry that can produce sufficient quantities at an affordable cost so the Navy can move to its goal of greater reliance on biofuel?”

The Navy, Agriculture Department and Energy Department recently announced $30 million in federal funding to support the commercialization of biofuel substitutes for diesel and jet fuel that can simply be dropped into existing tanks and infrastructure. The Energy Department also is spending $32 million to support research into advanced biofuel technologies at earlier stages of development.

But the Pentagon’s ability to buy alternative fuel would be restricted under legislation that passed the House of Representatives earlier this year as part of a Department of Defense authorization bill. That measure would bar the Defense Department from buying biofuels that cost more than conventional fuel.