Pentagon's Plans To Use More Alternative Fuels Hit Turbulence

March 10th, 2008  
Team Infidel

Topic: Pentagon's Plans To Use More Alternative Fuels Hit Turbulence

Federal Times
March 10, 2008
Pg. 4
By Tim Kauffman
A little-noticed provision in a new law could cause big problems for the Defense Department and other agencies trying to use more alternative fuels.
An energy bill signed into law in December prohibits agencies from contracting for alternative or synthetic fuels whose creation and use would emit more greenhouse gases than conventional gasoline.
The provision -- embedded in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act -- was added by House leaders as a check against Air Force plans to develop jet fuel derived from liquefied coal. Some estimates claim fuel from liquefied coal produces nearly twice the greenhouse gas emissions of conventional fuel.
But many officials now fear the measure could curb their use of other alternative fuels.
"It relates to any alternative fuel, including ethanol, biodiesel, tar sands, coal shale, coal-to-liquids, you name it," said William Anderson, assistant Air Force secretary for installations, environment and logistics.
The Defense Department is the largest federal purchaser of fuels, accounting for nearly all of the $12.6 billion that the government spent on fuel, oil and lubricants last year. NASA and the State Department also are big fuel consumers.
Leaders of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee sent a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates in January asking how the Pentagon will comply with the provision. As of last week, the department hadn't responded, a committee spokeswoman said.
The law prompted an appeal from Canada to exempt tar sands-derived oil from the law's coverage. Canada is the largest supplier of crude oil to the United States, and roughly half of Canadian oil is derived from tar sands, which are a mixture of sand or clay, water and naturally occurring heavy crude oil.
"There is little fuel on the U.S. market that is 100 percent petroleum extracted only by conventional methodology," Michael Wilson, Canada's ambassador to the U.S., wrote last month in a letter to Gates, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman. "Oil sands-derived petroleum represents approximately 5 percent of U.S. supply, and it's not segregated from other petroleum."
Paul Bollinger, special assistant to Anderson, agrees and says he's unsure how the Air Force will be able to avoid purchasing fuels derived from tar sands.
"The problem is, sometimes the oil sands get mixed in before they cross the border, then it gets mixed again with other imported and domestic oil, then it's sent to the refmeries for production of fuel. We buy fuel, we don't buy oil," Bollinger said.
Refineries won't disclose the location or type of oil they use because they consider such information proprietary, he said.
The provision also could derail the Air Force's efforts to generate a new source of jet fuel, which accounts for more than half of all fuel consumed by the Pentagon. The Air Force won't be able to purchase coal-to-liquid fuel for use in its planes until it can show that the production and use of the fuel don't create more greenhouse gas than traditional petroleum, Bollinger said.
"Industry experts producing this fuel say they can meet the standard, but there is no standard. Until we get a standard, we can't buy the fuel," he said.
The Environmental Protection Agency is studying the issue on behalf of the Air Force, but it is not expected to reach any findings for a year or longer, Bollinger said.
The Air Force is in the third year of purchasing coal-to-liquid fuel for testing purposes. It expects to buy about 300,000 gallons this year, up from the 281,000 gallons purchased last year from Shell in Malaysia, Anderson said. The provision against buying alternative fuel with high greenhouse gas emissions excludes fuel purchased by federal agencies for research or testing, so the Air Force can continue its studies into liquefied coal as a possible fuel alternative.
The EPA study could determine whether the greenhouse gasses created from liquefying coal can be captured, stored or used for other purposes, thus mitigating their harmful environmental impacts.
The Air Force's goal is to certify a synthetic fuel blend for its fleet by early 2011. It hopes to meet half of its fuel demand in the continental United States with synthetic fuels by 2016 -- that would equate to 400 million gallons a year.
Ethanol and other biofuels generally are thought to be less harmful to the environment than traditional gasoline. However, studies published last month in the journal Science found that producing fuels made from plant or animal substances can release far more carbon into the atmosphere than what is saved by burning the cleaner fuels. Rain forests in Indonesia, Brazil and other countries increasingly are being cleared for growing crops for biofuel, and the destruction of those forests produces greenhouse gas emissions that last for hundreds of years, the studies found.
However, an April analysis from EPA found that the production, distribution and combustion of ethanol and other biofuels offset greenhouse gas emissions that would otherwise occur from gasoline by as much as 91 percent.
"There are a lot of studies in dispute with each other on the topic of whether biofuels help or hurt our ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "At the basis of those disputes are differences in fundamental assumptions and in the technical data that are being used in the analysis."
To clarify the issue, the committee has asked the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering to complete a comprehensive study on the pros and cons of existing alternative fuel and electricity options. The study began in earnest this month, Bingaman said last week at the Air Force Energy Forum in Arlington, Va.
"I am hoping that it will help keep Congress from being whip-sawed by competing and inconsistent claims from proponents and opponents of specific advanced energy technologies," he said.

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