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WASHINGTON, Dec 19 2012 (IPS) - Reversing attempts to eliminate the U.S. military’s advanced biofuels programme, both houses of Congress on Tuesday approved major legislation that now presents no obstacles to broad-reaching Defence Department plans to mainstream and spread the use of alternative fuels throughout its operations.
The move has received broad plaudits from environmentalists, industry advocates and high-level defence officials.
“We’re really happy that Congress decided to support the Depart of Defence’s ability to develop and purchase biofuels,” Lena Moffitt, a Washington representative with the Sierra Club, an environment advocacy group, told IPS. “We wholly support the Pentagon’s major role in advancing the industry more broadly, including leading the charge in sourcing materials that are not food based.”
As the largest fuel consumer in the United States – using some 90 percent of the energy used by the federal government – the military has been ramping up plans to diversify its fuel options in the name of both economics and security, particularly following a related announcement by President Barack Obama in 2010. A major part of this push has been a focus on research into new alternative fuels, particularly though investing and partnering with the private sector.
Proponents say such public-sector spending offers a nascent but burgeoning industry critical capital with which to prove its products’ feasibility. Yet in recent months, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives had moved to ban the military from purchasing or developing biofuels, citing high costs and uncertain returns.
While the Senate voted down a related Republican amendment in late November, committees for the House and Senate have since been forced to reconcile the differing versions of the National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA), an annual appropriations bill. That final version, approved Tuesday, adheres to the Senate rather than House bill, scuppering the attempt to block the biofuels programme.
The final version of the NDAA also does not include a Republican amendment that would have done away with earlier legislation that disallows all federal agencies from purchasing any alternative fuel found to be more polluting than standard fuels.
The NDAA, in total worth more than 633 billion dollars, is to be voted on by the full Congress and go to President Obama for approval by the end of this week.
Great green fleet
Since 2009, much of the military’s biofuels vision has been spearheaded by the U.S. Navy. In turn, this has been pushed particularly by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who recently wrote that “if the Navy can fully pursue its initiatives, (advanced biofuel) will reach cost-competitiveness in 2016.”
Together with the departments of energy and agriculture, the navy has entered into an agreement to develop cost-effective advanced biofuels, the high-quality type needed to replace jet fuel and other high-end energy sources. That agreement is worth some 510 million dollars, a critical part of which has been and will be used to build the costly refineries that can produce new alternative fuels to specification.
In July, the three departments announced 30 million dollars in matching funds for related research this year. That same month saw the start of a six-week test mission of non-retrofitted U.S. Navy fighters and cruisers, referred to as the Great Green Fleet, that sailed around the Pacific powered in part by biofuel, the largest such experiment ever undertaken. (The navy also considers nuclear power to be an alternative fuel.)
Within the next decade, the navy has pledged to increase its use of alternative fuels in its plane and ship fleets by at least 50 percent. The U.S. Marines, a branch of the navy, has also been ordered to cut its overall energy use by nearly a third by 2015.
Those and similar long-term plans offer critical incentive for the private-sector players working on the research and development of advanced biofuels. Significant initial work has already taken place in this regard, as has testing and certification to ensure new products would meet specifications.
The new NDAA authorisation “would help get the first commercial large-scale demonstration biorefineries built to fully validate the technology and ability to produce these fuels at large scale,” Paul Winters, the communications director for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade group, told IPS.
“In the current economic climate, there’s been a reluctance among institutional investors and large commercial banks to invest or provide capital to build these biorefineries. So this public-private partnership is intended to help alleviate that situation, to encourage that investment.”
Winters characterises both the military and private airline industry as “eager” customers for these fuels. A major new push will now provide critical understanding of what the industry could be capable of down the road.
“The initial validation of the production of these fuels is necessary to encourage investment in large-scale production for those markets,” he says. “It’s further pushing the production of fuels that, from an environmental perspective, will be an improvement from the fuels that are currently used.”
The new authorisation should now lead to the construction of the first commercial-scale biorefineries in the United States, which the military is looking to have operational no later than 2020.
While concern has mounted around the world in recent years over Western countries’ new appetite for biofuels impacting negatively on world food prices and availability, the current U.S. military push is focusing almost exclusively on non-food items, including algae and oils made from non-food and agricultural wastes, with plans to use trash at some point.
Still, critics have pointed out that arable lands for biomass projects have supplanted food production in many places, including the United States, with industrial-sized “land-grabbing” for such use currently at an all-time high in Africa. The U.S. military programme does currently use a type of flax known as camelina for some of its biofuel mixes, and is planning to move more broadly into the use of other plant matter in the future.
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