U.S. Senate Restores Military Biofuels Programs

Backing biofuels. The U.S. Senate has lifted restrictions on the military's investments in biofuels, such as those used to power this U.S. Navy destroyer this summer.

U.S. Navy

The U.S. Senate has removed controversial proposed restrictions on the military's ability to develop and purchase biofuels from a major piece of defense legislation. Yesterday, the Senate voted 54 to 41 to remove language that would have prohibited the military from constructing biofuel refineries from the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which spells out how the Pentagon can spend more than $600 billion. That followed a 62 to 37 vote on Wednesday to strike another proposed restriction on the Department of Defense's (DOD's) ability to purchase biofuels. Both restrictions had been added to the NDAA earlier this year in committee by two narrow, 13-to-12 votes.

Biofuels made from plants or microorganisms typically cost more per gallon than traditional fossil fuels such as petroleum. Military leaders, however, say that nonpetroleum fuels will be crucial to national security: Reliance on oil leaves them vulnerable to attacks on supply lines and price changes. But congressional critics argue that the military's biofuels programs are too expensive and that alternative energy development should be handled by the private sector. Some Republicans have also criticized military biofuel investments as being an unwise extension of President Barack Obama's green energy policies.

In May, those arguments swayed the Senate committee which passed the two restrictions, essentially banning military involvement in biofuel development. The first would have prohibited the Department of Defense (DOD) from buying any alternative fuels that were more expensive than conventional fuels. The second restricted DOD investment in biofuel refineries, scuppering the Navy's plans to build a refinery and threatening to sink its "Great Green Fleet," a group of ships fueled by alternative energy.

This week, however, opponents of the restrictions struck back when NDAA was brought before the whole Senate for consideration. On Wednesday, a group of senators led by Mark Udall (D-CO) argued that the provision that prohibited DOD from purchasing more expensive alternative fuels was short-sighted. The United States needs to decrease its reliance on foreign oil, Udall said. Although biofuel prices are high now, he added, they are decreasing, and "will continue to drop if we keep making smart investments in smart technologies."

Yesterday, Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) took aim at the language in NDAA prohibiting DOD from constructing biofuel refineries together with the Departments of Energy and Agriculture. "I am pleased that the Senate voted … to preserve a program important to our military and the country's long-term national defense," she said.

Although the Senate votes are good news for biofuel proponents, the fate of the bill remains in doubt. The White House issued a statement yesterday criticizing several sections of the NDAA, including its limitation on biofuels. It said senior advisers would recommend that Obama veto the bill if it includes the problematic provisions.

A final Senate vote on the bill could come as early as today; the House of Representatives has already passed its version, which includes other restrictions on military biofuels programs. And time is running short to negotiate a final measure acceptable to the White House before the current Congress ends in late December.