Obama's 'Great Green Fleet' boondoggle using the Navy to push inefficient biofuels

In 2011, then-Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced an initiative called the Great Green Fleet. Although wrapped in the mantle of warfighting, it was never really about the Navy. Instead, it was about pursuing a national energy agenda and using military money to create a biofuel industry. The Great Green Fleet became part of a broader set of initiatives designed to put the Navy on the front lines of the fight against climate change. Although superficially plausible at the time when fuel prices were high, the Green Fleet is inappropriate, even counterproductive, at a time of booming U.S. energy production and Navy budget shortfalls. It is time to take a critical look at these energy initiatives, terminate those that do not directly help the Navy, subject others to cost-benefit analysis, but also look broadly at places where additional energy investments might help the Navy.

The Great Green Fleet was the most egregious element of the former secretary’s energy initiatives. Biofuels—making fuel from biological matter rather than pumping it from the ground—were thought to be more environmentally friendly and a way to reduce dependence on foreign oil. The administration committed to a half-billion-dollar initiative to jumpstart the industry, of which the Navy was responsible for $150 million. The Navy let contracts to various biofuel startups and development companies, bought developmental biofuel, and ran tests to ensure that these fuels were compatible with Navy systems. Critics said the Navy was paying $27 a gallon for biofuel when it could buy regular fuel on the open market for under $3 a gallon (see Commander James A. Corletta’s “ It’s Not So Easy Being Green ,” November 2014, Proceedings ). The secretary argued that creating a biofuel industry would expand fuel sources for the Navy in a crisis. Critics pointed out that Navy fuel requirements were a minor amount of national consumption (0.5 percent) and this additional source was unnecessary. A 2010 RAND study found “no benefit” to alternative fuels.

The drive for sustainable energy has spawned a wide variety of wind and solar projects on naval facilities. Without question, these efforts produce energy so bases no longer need to buy from the civilian grid. Whether the savings justify the large upfront investment costs is unclear. (One Norfolk project had a payback period of 448 years, according to a Department of Defense Inspector General audit in 2011.)

“Net zero” bases (energy, water, and waste independence from the civilian infrastructure) is one of those trendy ideas that makes little sense in the real world. Military bases do need the ability to operate services, particularly those supporting vital warfighting functions, for short periods of time if something happens to civilian infrastructure. But making entire bases independent of the broader economy is expensive and unnecessary.
There is more.

This was always a bad idea and it should have been obvious at the time Mabus was pushing it.  It was based on a faulty premise of scarcity of more efficient fossil fuels.  By 2011 the fracking revolution was well underway and proving Obama was wrong in saying that the US could not drill its way to cheaper oil and gas. 

If alternative energy has a place in the military it is in isolated combat bases where the costs and dangers of transporting in fuel make the alternatives more cost-effective and saves lives.  It makes no sense whatsoever for the Navy and Air Force.


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