Robbing Planet's Fort Knox to Power the Fleet

By Bill Moore

Posted: 21 May 2012

It's taken Mother Nature, a.k.a. Planet Earth, tens of millions of years to very, very slowly convert decaying carbon into what we today call fossil fuels. First it buried it deep, subjected it to enormous heat and pressure, creating long-chain hydrocarbon molecules called petroleum, or into simpler chains of methane (natural gas) or just plain coal. Most of this sequestered carbon was locked up deep in the planet's geological vault; a sort of energy Fort Knox of the planet.

Then along came modern man who gradually, over the centuries, figuree out how to use the stuff to coat the bottom of his boats or mine it to warm his hearth. But for the most part, mankind could only tease out a few 'coins' through a crack or keyhole here and there.

By the industrial revolution, however, technology handed mankind the combination to the vault, allowing industry and science to extract ever-larger quantities of the stuff, first the rock-hard carbon, then the gooey brown stuff and finally the gases, which often accompany both the coal and the oil.

The important thing to note here is that it cost mankind nothing, nada, zero, zip, to make all this fuel. We simply came along and helped ourselves to the treasury, patting ourselves on our backs for our ingenuity while finding ever-better ways to wrench more of the stuff out of the deeper, more inaccessible corners of the vault. Now, we're quite literally getting down to the tailings, the leavings, the 'fines,' and the gunk that those in the decades before us didn't think worth messing with since it simply wasn't -- at the time -- worth the investment. Now it is, but it's also costlier to get at and turn into something that is compatible with an energy system built around all the earlier good stuff.

Prior to technology handing us the key to Earth's energy Fort Knox, society had to reply on the sun's energy budget that turned sunlight into plant matter on a yearly cycle, storing it in rings of trees and seas of grass: the former providing the charcoal for forges; and latter for animal fodder. This fixed annual energy budget pretty well limited the growth in population based on available technology. It was only when we broke into the treasury that population soared and with it the technology to grow even more: more food, more clothing, more housing, more energy, more people.

This may seem like a long way to get to the point of this commentary: which is a recent ruling in the U.S. Congress that on the one hand seems stupidly short-sighted and on the other, maddeningly pragmatic.

Recognizing that at some point in the future, the planet's ancient energy trust fund will be pretty well tapped out or located in places that are impossibly costly -- financially, environmentally, politicly -- to reach, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus has been coaxing his branch of the U.S. military into experimenting with biofuel alternatives to the free stuff Mother Nature took millions of years to blend at no cost to us. The Navy successfully flew an F-18 Hornet on a bio-derived jet fuel blend in 2011.

This year, the Secretary wanted to run a two-day naval exercise in the Pacific using a 50/50 blend of petroleum and biofuel derived from chicken fat and waste greases to power a couple of destroyers and some jet aircraft. The 450,000 gallons would cost taxpayers $12 million, some 0.002 percent of the Defense Departments budget, of which $16 billion is just for fuel. That was the plan until Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee learned that it would cost four times what petroleum fuels would cost. They ordered the Navy to not buy any biofuels if they are more expensive than fuels we currently pilfer from the planet's treasury. That effectively stopped the project dead in its tracks, because for the foreseeable future, biofuels will be more expensive than fossil fuels since industry has to do all the work that Mother Nature did for free over the eons.

From a purely pragmatic perspective, one could argue that the Republicans are simply looking out for taxpayer interests until you realize that their "don't buy it if it's more expensive" directive doesn't apply to synthetic fuels derived from coal and natural gas. It's quite okay to buy those carbon-intensive fuels, which speaks volumes about what's the real agenda here: protecting the interests of the fossil fuel industry, even though producing synthetic fuels using Nazi-era technology actually produces more carbon dioxide than burning petroleum itself.

The Secretary insists that the Green Fleet initiative, as the program is called, isn't about the environment, it's about "a more stable, domestic supply of fuel." He points out that every time the price of a barrel of oil goes up $1, it costs the U.S. Navy $31 million.

“We simply buy too much fossil fuels from places that are either actually or potentially volatile, from places that may or may not have our best interests at heart, " he argues. "We would never let these places build our ships, our aircraft, our ground vehicles, but we do give them a say on whether those ships steam, aircraft fly, or ground vehicles operate because we buy so much energy from them.”

At stake here isn't just a two day Naval exercise, but a far larger issue: providing sufficient industry stimulus to encourage private investment in the biofuel industry, especially technologies that don't rely on food crops and arable farm lands, but the more efficient use of industrial waste and promising algael fuels. Mabus pointed out to Congress that the cost of biofuels have already dropped by half since 2009, and the $510 million joint program between the Departments of Defense, Energy, and Agriculture is just the right scale to coax investors into the business. Instead, politics seems determined to torpedo the program before it even leaves port.

There are two good articles on this issue you may wish to read. 'Why we need a greener military' in Slate and 'Republicans Order Navy to Quit Biofuels' in Wired.

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