Congressional Negotiators Drop Biofuel Restrictions in U.S. Defense Bill

Fueled up. Congress has restored the military's ability to buy biofuels, such as those that fueled this U.S. Navy exercise earlier this year.

U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ryan Mayes

Negotiators from the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have dropped a controversial provision blocking the military's ability to develop and purchase advanced biofuels. The deal comes as legislators aim to finalize a bill authorizing the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to spend $633 billion in 2013. The restrictions were adopted by the Republican-controlled House in May, but were left out of the version of the bill that the Democrat-controlled Senate passed late last month. The compromise language is expected to pass both houses of Congress later this week before landing on President Barack Obama's desk on Friday.

The military's use of biofuels originally sparked the ire of some GOP members of congress and the senate after it was widely reported that the military pays up to $26 a gallon for some "advanced" biofuels, which can be used as direct replacements for petroleum fuels used by ships and aircraft.

Proponents of the military's biofuels program argue that the high cost of advanced biofuels should decline as production ramps up. They add that the military is a vital customer, not only because it is one of the biggest users of fuel on the planet, but also because it tends to purchase goods on long-term contracts, which gives investors confidence that the biofuels market will be stable for years to come.

But those arguments didn't convince critics of the program, such as senators James Inhofe (R-OK) and John McCain (R-AZ). They argued that DOD shouldn't be in the business of developing alternative energy, a task that should fall to the Department of Energy and the private sector. Ray Mabus, the secretary of the Navy, responded that the military's biofuels effort is imperative for national security to reduce U.S. dependence on fossil fuels.

Phyllis Cuttino, who heads the clean energy program for The Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, D.C., says that the House and Senate conferees likely gave up the restrictions when it became clear there was only muted support for the measures among Senate Republicans. The compromise language "was a nice thing to have happen," she says. "It's a very important signal for industry and investors that DOD is staying the course on advanced biofuels."

However, Cuttino adds that she expects to see efforts to pass similar restrictions return in the next Congress, because critics of the program retain powerful committee assignments in both the House and Senate. "I don't see this issue going away," Cuttino says. So don't expect the cease fire over the military's use of biofuels to last long.