As the Navy ran exercises with biofuel-powered planes and vessels near Hawaii on Wednesday and Thursday, top Obama administration officials hit back against earlier criticism that the endeavor was a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said the "Great Green Fleet" test exercises for the first time proved that aircraft carriers, FA-18 jets and other equipment can run on advanced biofuels without any modifications - a major milestone in his quest to find an alternative to fuels derived from foreign oil.
"It was worthwhile to show that biofuels can compete and can be used in every single thing that we do in the Navy," Mabus said in a conference call with reporters Thursday.
Critics have blasted the exercises as too costly, especially as the Defense Department heads toward congressionally mandated budget cuts. In preparation for this week's exercise, the Navy spent $12 million buying 450,000 gallons of alternative fuels, which works out to just under $27 per gallon. Once blended 50-50 with petroleum fuel, the final cost settled around $15 per gallon.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., has accused the Obama administration of trying to foist a "green agenda" on the Pentagon.
Noting the budget cuts ahead, Inhofe said the Defense Department "can't afford business as usual, yet they are being coerced into spending $27 a gallon."
And last week, Thomas Pyle, the president of the oil industry-funded Institute for Energy Research, asked congressional leaders to investigate a Navy exercise he said made no sense "with huge reductions in resources for national defense already under way."
During the exercises Wednesday, foreign military leaders and top Pentagon brass watched as helicopters and other aircraft running on advanced biofuels landed on and lifted off from the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier, which itself was running on the alternative fuels. Attack aircraft were refueled in the air with a blend of petroleum-based fuels and advanced biofuel, and a separate refueling took place at sea.
Algae and cooking oil
The advanced biofuels used to power the Navy vessels came from a mix of algae and cooking oil, sold by San Francisco-based Solazyme and Louisiana-based Dynamic Fuels, a joint venture ofTyson Foods and Syntroleum Corp.
Mabus also signed a statement of cooperation with the Royal Australian Navy to guide future collaboration on using biofuels for military operations, which he described as essential to blunting the costs of price spikes and supply fluctuations in foreign oil.
"Our reliance on foreign oil is a very significant and very well recognized military vulnerability," Mabus said.
Mabus said every $1 increase in the price of oil translates into $30 million in additional costs for the Navy.
White House energy and climate change adviser Heather Zichal told reporters that criticism of the Great Green Fleet was shortsighted.
"We can't be timid about embracing new forms of energy like biofuels," Zichal said.
Drop in costs expected
For the biofuels industry, Mabus' plan to wean the Navy off conventional supplies creates a potentially lucrative market powering the Pentagon's ships, planes and tanks. Supporters say that while the cost of advanced biofuels is high now, those would drop as demand and production ramped up.
Following the exercise, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the next step is fostering a domestic biofuels industry that is creating advanced fuels using non-food feedstocks, such as inedible plant parts.
"Now the question is, how can we create an industry that can produce sufficient quantities at an affordable cost so the Navy can move to its goal of greater reliance on biofuel?" Vilsack said.
The Great Green Fleet test came during the 2012 Rim of the Pacific maritime exercise, the largest of its kind in the world.
The Navy joined the Agriculture and Energy Departments recently in announcing $30 million in federal funding to support the commercialization of biofuel substitutes for diesel and jet fuel.
Measure's strict limits
But the Pentagon's ability to buy alternative fuel would be restricted under legislation that passed the House of Representatives earlier this year as part of a Department of Defenseauthorization bill.
That measure would bar the Defense Department from buying biofuels that cost more than conventional fuel.