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Senate Biofuels Vote Supports Military, Economy and Environment

Peter Lehner

Posted November 28, 2012

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The fossil fuel industry tried to turn clean energy into something dirty during the political campaign season.

But in a hopeful sign from Washington, the Senate on Wednesday showed that there’s strong bipartisan support for a huge clean energy initiative that could be key to reducing our country’s dependence on oil.

By a margin of 62-37, the Senate voted against a proposal in the National Defense Authorization Act that would have prevented the Department of Defense from buying advanced biofuels to meet its energy needs. The proposal by Sen. James Inhofe, the climate-change denier from the oil patch state of Oklahoma, would have derailed plans that are well underway for the Air Force and Navy to get 50 percent of its fuels from biofuels by 2020.

The DoD wants to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels for both national security and budgetary reasons. Each time the price of a barrel of oil goes up $1, the military– and taxpayers – must come up with $130 million in funds that could otherwise go to support our troops.

To be sure, there are still some hurdles facing the military’s biofuel initiatives. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, for instance, has proposed that the military be banned from participating in building any biofuel refinery, which could be key to producing enough biofuel to meet the military’s needs.

But with 11 Republicans joining Democrats, Wednesday’s Senate vote shows that our lawmakers can agree on the fact that Washington shouldn’t stop efforts by the Department of Defense to diversify its fuel sources and decrease its dependence on oil – initiatives that could help the private sector as well.

As mentioned previously, if the military meets its biofuel goals, it could create more than 14,000 jobs and generate more than $10 billion in economic activity, according to a recent report from Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) an NRDC affiliate.

And since our Defense Department is the world’s biggest user of oil, shifting to biofuels could also make a noticeable dent in carbon emissions. If produced properly, some advanced biofuels--unlike conventional corn ethanol--can dramatically reduce emissions from planes, trucks, tanks and other vehicles that cause climate change. And some advanced biofuels can also avoid food competition and reduce harmful impacts on soil, water and wildlife if they are carefully managed and sustainably harvested.

It’s the national security implications that matter most to the military, of course.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told members of the Senate earlier this year that derailing the military’s biofuels plans “…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.”

Thirty-eight senators recently wrote Senate leadership noting that banning the military from buying biofuels “could cause harm to our national security and military readiness while hindering national efforts to develop viable domestic alternative fuels.”

And numerous active and retired military leaders who have served on the front lines note that the military’s biofuel efforts are essential to improving national security, protecting troops and stimulating our economy - most recently in pieces such as this one from a retired Air Force general and this one from a retired Navy SEAL. Both veterans are members of E2.

Benefits for national security; benefits for our economy; benefits for our environment:

The military’s biofuel initiatives all add up to a win for all of us – and a hopeful sign that with the elections behind us, our elected officials in Washington can find new ways to work together.

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Rachel SmolkerNov 29 2012 10:40 AM

It is irresponsible for NRDC, an environmental organization to be supporting military biofuels. You refer to " some advanced biofuels" being "good for the climate", "reducing emissions", will not compete with food production, or harm soils, wildlife etc. This is all couched in the largely meaningless term "sustainably harvested". I am unaware of ANY advanced biofuels that satisfy this unacheivable standard. The problem is that growing "biomass" requires land (soils, water, wildlife habitat, forests, nutrients, carbon and food growing potential therein). Demand for land is already clearly "unsustainable" at current levels and with expanding human pressures. There is no way to make vastly greater demand "sustainable". THe problem is quantitative, not qualitative. The military use of near 300k barrels PER DAY is clearly not sustainable. Has anyone tried to calculate how much land would be required to meet even a portion of that?? No matter how much we may want to find an easy stand-in for fossil fuels, pretending that we can substitute fuels from living biomass for those from dead biomass (fossil fuels) is extremely dangerous and misguided. Of course the "sustainability" of the US military and its activities are topic for another discussion which really ought to happen... No amount of biofuel is going to make warfare "clean, green and "sustainable"!

Larry EdwardsNov 29 2012 01:01 PM

This blog reads like something in an industry trade journal. Rachel Smolker got it right, in her comment.

NRDC should reexamine its policy. A far more effective approach at this point would be to dramatically reduce the military in size. The size of our military and its consumption of energy (a function both of size and aggressive actions) are quite excessive. Much of our military presence harms rather than helps our national security.

Keith BrunnerDec 5 2012 03:15 PM

As a community organizer with a group that is beginning to work with NRDC on pipeline opposition, I'm absolutely flabbergasted to read this article and have serious doubts about continuing to build a relationship with this organization. Surely this must be the position of Peter Lehner, and not the NRDC as a whole?

Will BenningtonDec 5 2012 06:05 PM

A win for the military and for the environment?!?!?

US militarism unleashes needless ecological and social destruction across the globe. There is absolutely no way to create a sustainable military.

Rachel Smolker is right on. To even make a drop in the bucket for the military would result in disastrous land grabbing, increase food insecurity in the US and abroad, and drastically increase the spread of genetical engineered crops, potentially GE trees.

What kind of world to you want to see? One where tanks are fueled by biofuels produced on stolen land, or one where there are no tanks?

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