Though the military has an impressive record for developing technologies to meet its frequently unique requirements, adopting biofuels is unlikely to help meet any mission other than earning political brownie points.
There are three reasons offered for why the military should spend money on biofuel development: (1) reducing battlefield exposure for fuel transportation, (2) decreasing dependence on volatile petroleum markets, and (3) restricting funding for hostile regimes and terrorist organizations. However, conventional fuels offer superior solutions for all three goals.
Switching to biofuels to reduce expensive and dangerous convoys makes no sense at all for one simple reason: Biofuels have lower energy density than conventional fuels and so will require more expensive and dangerous convoys. Biofuels are not produced at the battlefield.
The problem with dependence on volatile commodity markets is that commodity prices sometimes spike upwards. But the biofuels are more costly than the petroleum-based fuels—even when petroleum prices are high. Switching to more costly substitutes is hardly a reasonable solution. The Air Force spends about $35 per gallon for its bio jet fuel—10 times the cost of conventional fuel.
The entire U.S. military currently consumes about 360,000 barrels per day of petroleum-based fuel, with 175,000 barrels per day (or less) going to the Air Force’s jets. A single platform in the Gulf of Mexico (Thunderhorse) produces as much petroleum as these jets consume and at a much lower cost than the biofuel replacements.
The Keystone XL Pipeline would bring enough petroleum from a very secure Canada to meet our total military consumption two or three times over. The same story holds for other potential sources of conventional petroleum, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The Air Force’s target is to replace about 26,000 barrels per day with biofuels. Whatever energy security that may provide could be doubled by a single well in the Gulf of Mexico.
As a strategic policy, switching the military to biofuels can only make our enemies think we are not serious. If the entire military consumption were switched away from petroleum, that would cut worldwide demand by 0.4 percent. This cut would reduce revenues to oil producers by about 1.5 percent. Let’s hope biofuels are not anti-terrorism Plan A.
Though some energy technologies that are too expensive for general civilian use may make sense for the military, biofuels are not among them. The military needs to rethink its biofuels program.
Cross-posted from National Journal.