Oil Dependence: Don’t Put a Band-Aid on a Gaping Wound
In a recent study, James Bartis of the RAND Corporation claimed that “DoD and the services have only one effective option to deal with high petroleum prices: to reduce use of petroleum fuels overall.”
The RAND report dismisses research into alternative fuels as a waste of money. Will petroleum prices continue to increase? Probably. Does a reliance on petroleum based fuels pose threats to national security? Definitely. Bartis’s claims are the equivalent of putting a bandage over a gaping wound – simply strengthening our hold on a single source of energy will not reduce the high cost of fossil fuels or stop wealth transfers to potentially hostile countries. Advanced biofuels promise to reduce the military’s dependence on petroleum, increasing national security and protecting soldiers.
Bartis’s solution to our dependency on fossil fuels is to simply suck it up and deal with it. His study advocates using “partnership-building capabilities” to “offer security improvements that could promote greater production of petroleum and natural gas reserves.” In other words, the U.S. military would need to engage in nation building exercises in some of the world’s most dangerous places – Iraq, Nigeria, Sudan, and Libya – endangering the lives of American service members and potentially drawing the United States into more conflicts. Supply routes would also need further protection. Bartis sees increased American involvement in the Asian sea lanes to protect oil shipments as a way to “achieve broader U.S. objectives” including reducing tensions in the region between India and China. Increased military presence in Asia could actually provoke hostilities from China or India toward the United States, all while continuing to stretch our military’s capabilities.
The Department of Defense’s investments in advanced biofuels are not motivated by environmentalism. The military will continue to have access to fuel regardless of the cost, but the DoD calculates that relying on a volatile global oil market is neither safe nor secure. Every day, Americans send over $1 billion out of our economy for oil. Despite an increase in oil imports from Canada and Mexico, much of our oil still comes from unstable or hostile countries. Increasing production alone won’t solve this problem; oil is priced on a global market, making it impossible for the U.S. government to control the price or the amount of production of oil. Fluctuations in the price of petroleum lead to unexpected shortfalls in the budgeting process – $3 billion alone in FY 2011. For every $10 increase in the price of a barrel of oil, the Department of Defense must pay an extra $1.3 billion annually. Simply strengthening the protection of our oil sources and drilling more wells is not enough; the military needs options.
The major argument against increased investment in biofuels is the cost. The RAND report dismisses research into biofuels, claiming that they are not a cost effective alternative to fossil fuels. In fact, the cost of advanced biofuels has already rapidly declined. In 2009, the Navy paid $66.60 per gallon of biofuel to be blended with conventional fuel for use in training exercises. In 2011, that cost had decreased to $26.75 per gallon. So far, purchases by the Navy have been small, test R&D level purchases, which has led to the high cost of fuel. As the amount of advanced biofuels ordered increases, refining costs will continue to decrease.
A series of other studies published in the past few years support the claim that advanced biofuels will be a cost-competitive alternative to traditional fuel sources by the end of the decade. In a 2009 study, MIT listed hydrotreated renewable jet fuel (HRJ), produced by processing renewable plant-based oils, as one of the upcoming viable substitute fuel options that could be commercially available in North America within the decade. Researching for the Department of Defense, LMI found that the cost for biofuels is likely to continue to fall to between $1.43 and $5.24 per gallon by 2020, competitive with predicted petroleum prices. Earlier this year, the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Group announced that jet fuels made from non-food vegetable oils like camelina should be competitive with traditional jet fuel by 2018 and advanced biofuels produced from woody plants could be a cost competitive alternative to petroleum within a decade.
The United States military has had a long tradition of investing in developing technologies. The U.S. Navy pioneered the transition from sails to coal to oil-powered vessels. Similarly, the U.S. Air Force together with NASA almost singlehandedly created an industry when they began investing in microchips. The price of microchips decreased from $1,000 per unit to between $20 and $30 per unit in a matter of years. Biofuels have come a long way from using fry oil to power converted station wagons. Simply because the problem of finding an alternative to petroleum seems difficult is not a reason to stop searching. Advanced biofuels may not solve completely our dependence on oil. But a continuing investment in advanced biofuels will offer the U.S. military flexibility by providing options other than increased armed conflict over dwindling natural resources. Advanced biofuels are poised to become the next microchip, developing into a thriving industry that will provide an American produced fuel source, reducing our reliance on other countries for fuel.
Patrick Burke is a Truman Advocacy Intern.