On the orders of President Theodore Roosevelt, from December 16, 1907, to February 2, 1909, two squadrons of naval vessels circumnavigated the globe in a display of the United States’ growing naval power, and consequential increased global influence. This action, taken by what was known as the “Great White Fleet” would serve as a precursor to decades of political and military dominance by the United States on the world stage.
Today, the need for a powerful naval force has never been greater, and with constant innovation, the United States Navy continues to be a world leader in the pursuit of freedom and all those who threaten it. This continued dominance is achieved through perpetual increases in technology, not only in weaponry, but in the means of powering our fleet — from coal, to steam, to nuclear power, the development and advancement of fuels has been closely tied to the larger abilities of the U.S. naval force.
A recent undertaking by the Department of Defense, however, raises questions as to whether the military’s commitment to innovation may be endangered by political pandering — especially in the face of the announcements earlier this year that 3,000 sailors nationwide, approximately one out of every one hundred people in the force overall, will be forced to leave the Navy. The creation of a so-called “Great Green Fleet,” a series of improvements designed to make the military more “eco-friendly,” seems a contradiction in the face of increased Department of Defense cuts (a possible trillion dollars over the next ten years).
According to Wired’s Danger Room, the 450,000 gallons of biofuel that constitute the first stage of the transition to a “green” fleet will cost more than $12 million, a relatively small amount as far as Defense expenditures go. When compared with conventional fuels, however, the cost differential raises serious concerns about the long-term utility of the program. According to Wired:
The Navy previously paid about $1,000 for each barrel of biofuel it bought to test out in its jets. This new purchase, at first, will cost just as much: $26 per gallon, or $1,092 per barrel. That biofuel will then be blended with an equal amount of fossil fuel, producing 900,000 gallons — and an effective price of about $15 per gallon for that 50/50 blend. It’s “roughly half of what was paid in 2009,” according to Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy Tom Hicks, who serves as Mabus’ point man on energy issues. But it is still far more than the Navy currently pays for its JP-5 jet fuel: $3.97 per gallon, or $167 per barrel.
The full order will be shared between two companies: Dynamic Fuels (a joint venture between Syntroleum and Tyson foods) uses animal fats and wastes to create biofuel, while Solazyme employs algae to break down a wide variety of material, from plant matter to household waste into fuel. A closer look at the California-based Solazyme, however, reveals that political motives, rather than national security priorities, may be a driving force in the push to “go green.”
Solazyme received a $22 million grant in the 2009 stimulus package, and one of Solazyme’s “strategic advisors,” T.J. Glauthier, served on President Obama’s White House Transition Team, where he “focused primarily on the energy portion of the economic stimulus bill” according to Solazyme’s website. Before coming to Solazyme, Glauthier served as an advisor to SunRun, another California-based solar electricity provider that received $7 million as a result of the stimulus.
Indeed, this seems like yet one more in a long line of policies intended to prop up the inefficiencies and inadequacies of renewable energy sources. In reality, renewable fuel mandates are little more than subsidies to a select group of companies (with governmental connections like SunRun, Solazyme and Solyndra) that are often long on promises but short on results.
The way in which the first stage of the transition was enacted should raise eyebrows as to the long-term feasibility of the venture as well. As part of the White House’s recent “We Can’t Wait” campaign, the $12 million in funding for the venture was approved not through congressional vote, but by executive order.
Proponents of renewable energy tout the environmental “need for sustainability,” as well as job creation, as principal reasons for pursuing costly and inefficient energy sources. For example, while a biofuel plant built in Louisiana by Dynamic Fuels created 300 jobs, it cost upwards of $150 million to build.
This dichotomy is the core of the biofuel debate: There is some ambiguous “good” to be derived from the fuel, but it is grossly out shadowed by cost. In essence, each of the 300 jobs created in Louisiana was subsidized with over $70,000 of taxpayer money.
And as for the environmental impact, the positive impact of biofuels is not as obvious as proponents of “green” policies make it sound. According to a 2011 report issued by the National Academy of Sciences:
[T]he impact of biofuel production on those emissions depends on a wide range of land-use and other management factors. The production of biofuels could result in an increase in greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional petroleum because manufacturing and transporting the biofuel burns additional fossil fuels.
As for how such fuels would fare in market without massive governmental support, Aviation Week has its doubts:
[T]he air transport industry may be deluding itself if it believes biofuels are the panacea for carbon footprint reduction, at least for this decade and possibly beyond. High fuel costs as well as competing demand make it unlikely that biojet will deliver the promised carbon dioxide reductions within a desired timeframe.
Despite the fuel’s inability to succeed in the market on its own, the government has taken biofuels under its wing, like solar and wind power before it. Neste Oil, the world’s largest renewable diesel firm, produces biodiesel much like Dynamic Fuels — through breaking down feedstocks consisting of oils, greases, and fats. Without factoring in feedstock costs, Neste Oil’s cost of production increased by 25 percent from 2009 to 2011.
Though Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus may claim that as the Navy buys more fuel economies of scale will lower costs, a joint Navy-MIT study found that even with ideal production conditions, biofuels would still be twice as high as conventional fuels.
Increasing the efficiency of the Navy should be high on the list of U.S. national priorities, and environmental sustainability should accompany that efficiency whenever possible. But the Navy has been making such changes without political intervention. The first hybrid amphibious assault vessel, the U.S.S. Makin Island, was recently commissioned, and many of our destroyers are slated to be fitted with hybrid drives and software that maximize efficiency in navigation, thus conserving fuel.
The United States military, the Navy in particular, holds the same symbolism that it did in 1907. It is a beacon of hope for those oppressed, a shining example of what liberty and democracy can beget. Such a bastion of freedom should not be subject to partisan budget squabbles and political ideological battles. Indeed, the bloated bureaucracy and cronyism that may characterize other sectors of government has no place intruding on the military’s mission of national security and defense.