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DOD weighs in on fuel procurement provision, Section 526, saying repeal would take country in wrong direction

Liz Barratt-Brown

Posted July 21, 2011 in Moving Beyond Oil, Solving Global Warming

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The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee (E&NR) is expected to vote on a bill that would repeal of Section 526, the embattled provision of the 2007 energy bill that requires that federal agencies not contract for fuels that create more global warming pollution than conventional fuels.  These fuels, primarily tar sands oil, oil shale and liquid coal, would vastly increase emissions from transportation, making it nearly impossible for the U.S. to start to curb emissions from this important sector. 

Ever since its passage in 2007, there have been repeated efforts to repeal it.  Why has this one paragraph section been under such assault?

The companies that would benefit from greater exploitation of these dirty fuels have powerful allies in Congress.  And Canada, the country that most people associate with environmental stewardship and natural beauty, has spent and is spending millions of dollars on hired guns (mostly past Ambassadors) to push for a repeal to protect the expansion of the tar sands in northern Alberta. Earlier this week, David Wilkins, the former U.S. Ambassador to Canada in the Bush Administration and now a newly minted lobbyist for the Canadian oil producers, said that repeal of Section 526 was a top priority.  

Things might look a grim for this “little section that could” if it weren’t for the recent decision by the Department of Defense (DOD) to enter the fray to defend the provision against repeal in this committee and exemption from funding in the appropriations committees of Congress.

This week, E&NR has released statements entitled “What Would Our Troops Do? America’s Soldier’s/Sailors/Airmen/Marines support Section 526. Here’s why” and “What Would Our Troops Do? (Part II).” These statements come on the heels of a short, but powerful statement by DOD that was sent to the Hill on July 5th saying that it was in the U.S. national security interest to move away from our overdependence on non-renewable fuels.  My colleague, Brian Siu, blogged on this statement, listing a stream of military quotes in support of Section 526.  And I blogged about how the arguments made in the DOD statement undercut the national security arguments made by proponents of dirty fuels. 

The first release, on Tuesday, was of a letter sent by Assistant Secretary of Defense to the Chairman of the Committee, Senator Bingaman. It said:

…repeal or exemption could hamper the Department’s efforts to provide better energy options to our warfighters and further increase America’s reliance on non-renewable fuels.  Our dependence on those types of fuels degrades our national security, negatively impacts our economy, and harms the environment. [Italics added for emphasis]

This is a bombshell of a statement if you have been in the trenches for the last three plus years defending this provision.  As I explain in my previous blog, the major argument of those who seek repeal is that this provision interferes with our national security interests in burning ever more oil and coal.  

The second release, yesterday, is a blog written by Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy Plans and Programs, Sharon Burke.  She wrote about a new vehicle delivered to the Pentagon this week that is dubbed the “Fuel Efficiency Demonstrator-Alpha (FED-Alpha).” She explains that this vehicle has the protection of an armored Humvee but beats the Humvee by reducing fuel use by up to 70%, a critical feature because “each gallon of gas counts in a war,” citing that a $1 rise in the price of a barrel of oil translates to approximately $130 million over the course of a year for DOD. “…And DOD personnel are well aware of the security and economic consequences of U.S. and global dependence on oil, trends that will get worse with time.”  She continues, saying we shouldn’t “trade one security challenge for another” by exacerbating climate change and the burden that it could have on militaries around the world as instability and conflict increases.

The blog concludes that “repeal or exemption of Section 526, as is being discussed on Capitol Hill, is at best unnecessary. Although the Department will strive to make the right choices in any case, repeal could complicate the Department’s efforts to provide better energy options to our warfighters and take advantage of the promising developments in homegrown biofuels.”

DOD has made it clear that these dirty fuels are not in our national interest but rather in the interest of those that would keep us dependent on them to the detriment of our society and our military.  We have better choices, and who could have said it better than DOD in these two very helpful statements in support of Section 526. 

When members of E&NR vote to repeal Section 526, they can no longer hide behind the premise that their opposition is in defense of our national security. It will be clear that they are voting in defense of the major oil and coal companies, many of whom have lined their war chests with campaign contributions.  The fight will continue, but for now, it is a big help to Section 526 to have DOD on its side.     

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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