A red flag for the ‘great green fleet’

Critics said the Navy Department's push for alternative energy is a bad use of its constrained budgets.

House Armed Services Committee Republicans pounced Thursday on the Navy Department’s push to use more alternative fuel, faulting the effort as a bad use of money in a time of constricting budgets.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus sparred with member after member over the course of an otherwise humdrum budget hearing, arguing that today’s high upfront costs for biofuels and alternative energy will ultimately pay off in better science and “energy independence” for tomorrow’s fleet.

Virginia Republican Rep. Randy Forbes kicked off the offensive with a performance worthy of “Clear and Present Danger.” He pounded his fist on his desk and stabbed his finger at the Washington Post, demanding why the Navy would buy fuel at such a premium instead of using it to build ships or for other priorities. ┬áBack in the old days, the Navy’s goal used to be 600 ships, Forbes said, but today its fleet is shrinking even as China’s grows. He did everything but bellow, How dare you, sir?

The Navy Department has set and then broken its own records for the amounts of money it has paid for fuel. In joint efforts with the Department of Agriculture and others, it has paid hundreds of millions of dollars for batches of biofuel in a deliberate bid to jumpstart its production. Because the government must cover all the research, development and production costs for alternative fuels, it can wind up costing $20 per gallon, as compared to around $3.00 per gallon for standard aviation fuel.

Mabus basically shrugged, saying this year’s budget submission would keep the fleet at a steady size and eventually grow it from 285 to 300 ships. He said he thought it was worthwhile for the Navy to spend money to grow the alternative fuels industry to a size at which it could theoretically price fuel at a competitive rate with petroleum. And at very least, he said, a reliable supply of biofuel, even one more expensive than petroleum, could protect the Navy Department from “price shocks,” like the one that hit it last year around the time of the turmoil in Libya.

“Every time oil goes up a dollar, it costs the Navy $31 million,” Mabus said.

When it was his turn, Texas Republican Rep. Mike Conaway picked up Forbes’ line of attack. Then Virginia Republican Rep. Scott Rigell. Then Georgia Republican Austin Scott, who tied Mabus’ support for alternative energy to President Obama’s renewable energy commitments from his State of the Union address. Renewable energy accounts for less than 10 precent of the electricity used throughout the world, Scott said, “and the reason is the cost.” He asked how the Navy and Marine Corps would cover the expense of using more alternative energy for shore installations at a time when they were delaying programs and cutting their forces.

Mabus said there would be no extra expense — bases would either buy power off the grid or use their own alternative ways of generating it. He also tried to parry Scott’s question by going back to something asked by New Hampshire Democratic Rep. Jim Langevin, who warned about vulnerability to a cyber-attack on the nation’s power grid. If Navy and Marine Corps bases are energy-independent, Mabus said, it might mean they could operate in a crisis even if the larger electrical grid was down. The Navy Department is studying “micro-grids,” he said, so groups of bases could keep operating in the even of a larger failure.

It was hard to know what to make of Thursday’s squall — whether it presages more skirmishes about spending here v. spending there or whether it was just election-year performance art for hometown TV cameras. But it seemed unlikely anyone walked away from the hearing with their mind changed.