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Alternative Fuels Don’t Benefit the Military, a RAND Report Says

    The report also argued that most alternative-fuel technologies were unproven, too expensive or too far from commercial scale to meet the military’s needs over the next decade.

    In particular, the report argued that the Defense Department was spending too much time and money exploring experimental biofuels derived from sources like algae or the flowering plant camelina, and that more focus should be placed on energy efficiency as a way of combating greenhouse gas emissions.

    The report urged Congress to reconsider the military’s budget for alternative-fuel projects. But if such fuels are to be pursued, the report concluded, the most economic, environmentally sound and near-term candidate would be a liquid fuel produced using a combination of coal and biomass, as well as some method for capturing and storing carbon emissions released during production.

    The findings by the nonprofit research group, which grew out of a directive in the 2009 Defense Authorization Act calling for further study of alternative fuels in military vehicles and aircraft, are likely to provoke much debate in Washington.

    The Obama administration has directed billions of dollars to support emerging clean-energy technologies even as Congress has been unwilling to pass any sort of climate or renewable energy legislation.

    Meanwhile, the Pentagon is seeking to improve the military’s efficiency and reduce its reliance on fossil fuels over the coming decade, devoting $300 million in economic stimulus financing and other research money toward those goals.

    RAND’s conclusions drew swift criticism from some branches of the military — particularly the Navy, which has been leading the foray into advanced algae-based fuels.

    “Unfortunately, we were not engaged by the authors of this report,” said Thomas W. Hicks, deputy assistant secretary of energy for the Navy. “We don’t believe they adequately engaged the market,” he said, adding, “This is not up to RAND’s standards.”

    The analysis has also irked environmental groups and biofuels proponents, who argued that RAND had underestimated the commercial viability of algae and overestimated the availability and efficacy of carbon capture and storage technology.

    The Air Force is engaged in extensive testing of biofuel blends in its aircraft, and the Navy received 20,000 gallons of algae-based fuel for testing and certification from the California company Solazyme last summer. Solazyme signed a contract with the Defense Department to deliver another 150,000 gallons this year.

    Proponents of these endeavors argue that the military, with its substantial buying power, can help spur the expansion of renewable fuel markets into the civilian sphere.

    “This would not be the first example of a military-driven research project where the civilian benefit far outweighs the military benefit,” said Paul Winters, a spokesman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington. “Witness the Internet,” he said.

    Mr. Hicks of the Navy also took issue with the notion that there was no military benefit to the pursuit of oil alternatives.
    Gregory N. Juday/US Navy, via Associated Press

    “We are doing this because there are energy security issues at play,” he said. “Every barrel of oil we can replace with something that’s produced domestically, the better we are as a nation, and the more secure and more independent we are.”

    In the report, however, James T. Bartis, a senior policy researcher at RAND and the lead author of the analysis, argued that while the military consumes substantial amounts of liquid fuels — about 340,000 barrels each day — this accounts for less than 2 percent of the nation’s total use, which is estimated to be 19 million barrels a day.

    As such, the greenhouse-gas benefits arising from the military’s efforts along these lines are likely to be minuscule. The authors argued that both the Defense Department and Congress should “reconsider whether defense appropriations should continue to support the development of advanced alternative fuel technologies.”

    Further, the report said that the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 required that any alternative and synthetic fuels bought by federal agencies for “mobility-related use” must have lower greenhouse gas emissions — or at least no greater — than those of conventional fuels.

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Alternative Fuels Don’t Benefit the Military, a RAND Report Says

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