US Navy’s Justification for Using Mostly Biofuel Makes Little Sense

uss chafee
USS Chafee (DDG-90), a participant in the 2012 Great Green Fleet demonstration

U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus mentioned in a tweet today that “by no later than 2020, at least half of our #energy will come from non-fossil fuel sources.”

This push for biofuel is not a new initiative for Secretary Mabus who has been marketing the idea since 2009.

In a speech last month at Arizona State University, he notes:

“Each $1 increase in the price of a barrel of oil results in a $30 million bill for the Navy and Marine Corps. This has huge implications across the Department of Defense and for our security. DOD [Department of Defense] is the largest single institutional consumer of fossil fuels on earth and budgets about $15 billion each year on fuel, but in fiscal years 2011 and 2012, price spikes added another $3 billion to the DOD fuel bill.”

Meanwhile, since 2011 oil production in the United States has basically reinvented itself and oil stocks are at levels not seen since the 1930s.

In April 2014, Mabus noted that the US Navy, along with the US Department of Agriculture had “teamed with four companies in the United States to produce biofuel that by 2016 will equal about 25 percent of all our energy needs afloat.”

This biofuel will come at a price point of around $3.50 per gallon according to Secretary Mabus last month, a number he notes as “extremely competitive” to conventional fuels.  Meanwhile, the price per gallon for ultra low sulfur fuel is around $2.90, or 20% lower.

In the same breath he mentions this will “strengthen our combat capability by diversifying our sources of power.”

This doesn’t seem to add up as both oil and biofuels are highly influenced and driven by global energy and agricultural markets.  The only diversification appears to be the fact that biofuels can be used interchangeably by US Navy assets as they did during RIMPAC 2012 where the entire Nimitz Carrier Strike Group used a 50/50 blend of conventional oil and biofuels.

Not only that, but requiring a 50 percent use of biofuels non-fossil fuels, rather than enabling the use of biofuels based on market conditions, greatly increases the complexity of the logistical supply chain with little apparent gain.  In addition, this might also artificially skew the market for biofuels which could potentially have an adverse affect on the global agriculture market.

On the growth of biofuel production, ExxonMobil notes in their 2014 Energy Outlook:

As conventional production declines, more of the world’s oil demand will be met by emerging sources that only recently became available in significant quantities — oil sands, tight oil, deepwater, NGLs and biofuels.

Growth in these emerging sources is largely due to advancements in science and technology; the exception is biofuels, which in most countries is linked to government policies that mandate the use of these fuels derived from agricultural products like corn, sugar, seeds or palm oil.

Like the commercial industry has noticed, the biggest gains to be had while operating under tough fiscal conditions are operational efficiencies.   Biofuels are a great idea for the Navy, but only if a true warfighting or cost-savings advantage can be gained from it.

Helping to “develop an alternative energy industry that is competitively priced to help drive economic growth” is not a mission of the US military.

UPDATE: Secretary Mabus notes that he is pushing for non-fossil fuels, which includes biofuel and nuclear, which would reduce the requirement for biofuel to some number under 50 percent.  Even so however, requiring the 50% use of non-fossil fuels (to include nuclear) still does not appear to be supported by any sort of strategic reasoning, and would still result in higher fuel bills for the Navy for the reasons mentioned above.

In addition, the use of biofuels is currently not sustainable from a logistical or environmental standpoint as the amount of land needed to create the required about of biofuel would be immense and compete with food crops.  Additionally, agricultural techniques release a great deal of CO2 into the atmosphere which eliminates any potential greenhouse gas reductions, or in some cases, results in more GHGs released to the atmosphere than via fossil fuels according to Professor Claus Felby from the University of Copenhagen.