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A 'Sustainable' Military?

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This past week, the U.S. Senate voted to strike language from the National Defense Authorization Act that would have limited military use of biofuels by requiring that they only purchase biofuels at costs comparable to petroleum fuels. Further, they amended the bill to allow defense spending on refinery construction, previously prohibited. That move included the $510 million in funding via an agreement between the Department of Defense, the USDA and the Department of Energy. Given the call to reduce military budgets, biofuels are at issue after hackles were raised following the revelation that the Air Force had paid out $59/gallon for biofuelled test flights, and the Navy's "Great Green Fleet" demonstration, using $26/gallon fuel, at a total cost over $12 million.

So the push for biofuelled warfare has taken a big step forward, much to the delight of the domestic biofuels industry, which is very hopeful that military demand and investment will serve as their lifeline, providing impetus, large infusions of finance and boundless guaranteed demand for fuels.

In an article in Biofuels Digest, the executive director of Algae Biomass Organization, Mary Rosenthal, states:

Federal support for nascent energy technologies is not without precedent. In fact, the natural gas revolution that has been unleashed by hydraulic fracturing (fracking) technology was originally funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. The military has led other energy revolutions as well; they pioneered the transitions from ships driven by the wind to those steaming with coal, then on to cruising with petroleum and nuclear reactors. By providing advanced biofuels with stable support for research and deployment the Department of Defense will be on the forefront once again. The military advantage is obvious, and the potential economic advantages cannot be ignored.

Indeed, from Mary Rosenthal's perspective, military interest in, especially, algae fuels, is her career lifeline. The title of her article "Support Our Troops" should more appropriately have been "Support My Career". Algae fuels have been pursued to the tune of many millions of dollars in subsidies and supports, ongoing since the early 1970s now, all to little avail. There still remains no commercial production and very significant barriers (high nutrient requirements, low productivity, intense water requirements etc). Making biofuels from algae is technically straightforward, but doing it in a manner that does not require more energy than is delivered by the fuels has so far proven elusive. Yet the promise of algae fuels continues to facilitate the ongoing development of other biofuels in spite of clear and evident harms.

The biofuels industry and its supporters are enthusiastically rallying around military biofuels, couched in what might be considered dangerously zealous and patriotic terms, as if not supporting military biofuels is on par with committing treason. Max Baucus, for example: "I call these freedom fuels, because they help get us off of foreign oil and help bring good paying jobs to Montana." The myth that we will gain "energy security" via the production of biofuels is patently absurd. The U.S. can only produce so much biofuel, even if we were to dedicate virtually all of our cropland and forests to the task. Just a day or two ahead of the senate vote, nobel prize winning photosynthesis scientist, Harmut Michel stated that "all biofuels are nonsense" -- based on the extreme inefficiencies inherent to converting solar energy first into chemical energy in plants via photosynthesis, and then into biofuel via various refinery processes.

This is why biofuels have such a massive "land footprint"-- very little energy from a lot of land area. Even if we were to devote every square inch of arable land and water to the task we would barely scratch the surface of current energy consumption. And meanwhile, we are already importing biofuels from outside our boundaries (as we also export coal and gas!) The U.S. imports Brazilian sugarcane ethanol, and exports corn ethanol to Brazil -- apparently the result of some determination that sugar ethanol meets higher emissions standards and can therefore be used towards meeting different requirements of the renewable fuel standard. A global economy is in place, and biofuels, like all other commodities, are traded as deemed profitable. So much for energy "independence".

The jobs argument is becoming a tired old saw -- at every turn these days we are threatened and bullied into complicity by the threat of unemployment. In this case, implicit to Baucus' statement is the idea that opposing military biofuels will lead to poverty and joblessness and is therefore "unkind." But the underlying cause of our economic hardships, and the real solutions to it, have nothing to do with creating absolutely any and all jobs without any consideration of the implications of the work they achieve or it's impact on the rights of other peoples to eat or live decently!

The U.S. military is the largest consumer of petroleum on earth burning through something on order of 300 thousand barrels of oil daily. That is 12,600,000 gallons of fuel per day or a whopping 4,599,000,000 gallons of fuel per year. Meanwhile, data on biodiesel production in the U.S. for 2012 from EIA indicate that in favorable months, we produce about 100 million gallons, so optimistically, 1,200 million (1.2 billion) gallons per year. There is no other advanced biofuel produced in any significant quantity, so biodiesel represents the vast majority of "advanced fuels" produced. Thus, if we chose to put every drop of biodiesel we produce towards military use, we could never offset more than a small part of the military demand.

Ironically, even as Congress is voting to support military biofuels, a new report from the New England Complex Systems Institute, discussed in National Defense magazine this week, argues that "U.S. Energy Policy [biofuels] Fuels Global Insecurity". The report refers specifically to the impact of corn ethanol on food prices, and the resulting social conflict where hungry people resent and rebel. The US currently dumps on order of 40 percent of its corn crop into ethanol production, contributing a miniscule portion of our overall transport energy (and oxygenating fuel). So we are faced with the deeply twisted situation where our demand for biofuels is generating social conflicts, and we therefore need more biofuels in order to fuel the military that is supposedly "protecting" us.

We are told over and over that "advanced biofuels", especially cellulosic fuels made from inedible plant parts and wood, will save us from the problem of food competition and thus the threat of escalating social conflicts resulting. But, first of all, most biofuels classed as "advanced fuels" in the U.S. now produced (biodiesel from soy and corn oil) are not made from cellulose. They are soy and other oil biodiesel, sugarcane and other non-corn starch based ethanol. These certainly do have impacts on land use, food and fiber markets that ripple throughout the economy. More fundamentally, the distinction between food and non-food biomass is nonsensical, because of course underlying all plant biomass growth, is the soil, water and nutrients that are essential to plant growth, and are increasingly in short supply. There is a tacit assumption that land use is somehow static, but farmers, foresters and landowners base decisions on what to plant and/or harvest largely on economics. If converting a corn field to grow genetically engineered poplars for cellulosic fuels is profitable, farmers will very often choose to do so, and hence direct competition with food production does not magically dissappear. Of course all of this is somewhat moot because so far basically nobody has succeeded in producing cellulosic "non-food" fuels on commercial scale, in spite of the mandates and an ongoing flow of subsidies that have supported its development. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of people around the globe are faced with hunger as we continue to use the future prospect of non-competing fuels as an excuse to continue with misguided policy and practice.

Sadly, even supposedly "environmental" groups, like NRDC support the development of biofuels for military use. Their "affiliate", Environmental Entrepreneurs published a report entitled "Economic Benefits of Military Biofuels," claiming lots of jobs would be generated, for farmers and others working in the supply chain. Jobs are a good thing, but not if they kill people and/or the planet, so before we jump on that bandwagon let's at least think through the implications of employment clearly. Groups like NRDC are supposedly concerned about the environment. Alongside many in industry, they talk a lot about "sustainability", assuring the public that biofuels can and should and will be produced as such. The word is inserted into every other sentence almost as if sheer repetition of the term will cause sustainability to happen. But there is no agreed definition of the term. In fact, for those concerned with economics and the company's bottom line, sustainability refers specifically to the balanced inflow and outflow of profits, and has nothing at all to do with environment or social justice. NRDC seems oddly reluctant to outright reject anything (biofuels, fracking) and so instead they refer to "doing it right" (i.e. sustainably). The underlying assumption is that it is in fact possible to produce such massive quantities of biofuels "sustainably". But the problem is that it is the scale of demand itself that is unsustainable. No "greenhouse gas accounting" or list of lofty hopeful "sustainability principles", and no amount of repetition of the word can avert the consequences of a huge new demand for land, soil, water and nutrients. Sustainability standards are especially meek in the face of massive federal subsidies and a near religious fervor over the concept of "energy security", which tends to entirely over-ride environmental concerns.

In the end, there is only so much "biomass" available on the surface of the earth. We have an expanding human population (and dwindling nonhuman population) to feed and house, and there is the very dangerous expectation that we need to fuel an ever-growing, limitless economy. This is all in the context of escalating catastrophic impacts of climate change including severe droughts, wildfires, forest dieback and disease, water shortages and desertification of soils, all of which impact "biomass." There is no question that halting deforestation, better stewardship of soils, restoration of natural systems all would provide a critical line of defense against the coming storms, but instead it appears we are on track to convert what is left into "biomass" in order to fuel the machinery of warfare.

In the end, one has to question not the "sustainability" of biofuels, but of the military itself. The environmental (including climatic) and human rights impacts of U.S. military activities is the "elephant in the room" -- undisclosed and unreported -- likely not even mentioned at the current UNFCCC meeting in Doha. As delegates from developing countries fight for meaningful investment to help them survive the consequences of climate catastrophe, the U.S. refuses to rise to meet its obligations, instead dumping trillions into military budgets (including more investment in military biofuels). In the not too distant future will we witness biodiesel fueled wars fought against hungry enraged peoples over access to soybean fields instead of oil fields?

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