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Should the U.S. military abort its biofuel mission?

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A RAND Corporation report tells the Armed Forces that biofuels will not help them achieve their military or emissions goals. In response, the Navy sticks to its green guns.

President Obama declared a "Sputnik moment" in last night's State of the Union speech and promised a budget that would focus on clean energy technology. He also proposed deep cuts, which he said included some unnecessary spending by the Department of Defense.

Whether those cuts would include the Armed Forces' clean energy programs is unclear, but earlier yesterday the RAND Corporation made some suggestions on how the DOD might rethink their green strategy.

The Air Force, Marines, Navy and Army have spent many millions to shrink their carbon bootprint and achieve energy independence through various means—jets flying on biofuel, solar-powered camps, better battery packs, solar parking lots for bases at home.

The report, which had been mandated by Congress, focused on whether the alternative and synthetic fuels currently in development could satisfy military and environmental needs. Taking commercial viability, affordability, and environmental impact into account, it concluded that biofuels—via feedstocks of vegetable oils, animal fats, camelina, soybeans, jatropha, algae—would not improve tactical military operations. They might eventually, however, benefit the nation as a whole through their civilian use.

James Bartis, the study's lead author, says in a statement:

To realize the national benefits of alternative fuels, the military needs to reassess where it is placing its emphasis in both fuel testing and technology development. Too much emphasis is focused on seed-derived oils that displace food production, have very limited production potential and may cause greenhouse gas emissions well above those of conventional petroleum fuels.

For instance, to replace jet fuels JP-8 and JP-5 or naval distillate F-76, the fuels in question must emit equal or less amounts of greenhouse gases over the course of their life cycle, from how they are grown, processed, and transported to how cleanly they burn.

The issue often lied in how potentially bountiful the feedstocks were, and not on whether the fuels actually worked. Jatropha and camelina, which are not food plants, would produce just 200,000 barrels a day, says the report. Animal fats and waste oils would top out at 30,000 barrels daily.

Not shockingly, the Advanced Biofuels Association was not happy. Its president Michael McAdams said the study "embraces the failed energy policies of the past." Some Navy officials were "vehemently" in disagreement with the findings, too. ClimateWire quotes Tom Hicks, the Navy's deputy assistant secretary of energy:

We have been engaged with the biofuels industry. We know what they are capable of doing, and we are confident they will be able to deliver the fuels at the quantities and at the price point we need.

For military purposes, RAND recommends the DOD concentrate on energy efficiency and perhaps, Fischer-Tropsch fuels. Such fuels can use feedstocks of biomass or coal or a blend of both. Coal-based FT fuels, unsurprisingly, are heavy on the greenhouse gas emissions. Their use would require carbon capture and sequestration methods to meet the DOD's pollution targets. CCS, of course, is not yet proven economically either. As for biomass feedstocks of FT fuels, the land-use practices that produce them would need to be sustainable for them to be an option for the military's green aspirations.

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Image: U.S. Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr.

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Melissa Mahony

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Melissa Mahony has written for Scientific American Mind, Audubon Magazine, Plenty Magazine and LiveScience. Formerly, she was an editor at Wildlife Conservation magazine. She holds degrees from Boston College and New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure