ABOARD THE USS NIMITZ — Some 100 miles northeast of Oahu in the Pacific Ocean, a fleet of U.S. Navy fighter jets slings from the deck of the aircraft carrier Nimitz, leaving thin trails of smoke on the tight runway.
The operation, part of maneuvers involving several thousand sailors as part of the world’s largest naval exercises in waters off Hawaii, was at the center of a growing controversy involving defense spending and foreign oil.
The dozens of air and sea vessels surrounding the Nimitz — including helicopters, fighter jets and destroyer ships — were running on a biofuel blend that can be substituted for traditional fuel without any engine modifications.
Navy officials say using the alternative fuel helps the military address weaknesses. Operations that use more than 50 million gallons of fuel each month rely on petroleum, making the U.S. military heavily dependent on foreign oil.
Market volatility causes Navy spending to swing by tens of millions of dollars each time the price of a barrel goes up or down $1.
“We’re not doing it to be faddish, we’re not doing it to be green,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said aboard the Nimitz Wednesday. “We’re not doing it for any other reason except it takes care of a military vulnerability that we have.”
He added, “One of the things you better do as a military is take care of those vulnerabilities.”
But the plan to use a 50-50 blend of alternative and petroleum-based fuel has hit a snag — Congressional lawmakers who bristle at spending time and money chasing alternative energy at a time when defense spending is being cut and traditional oil is cheaper.
The Senate Armed Services Committee last month narrowly passed an amendment pushed by Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma that would prohibit military spending on alternative fuels if their costs exceed the cost of traditional fossil fuels.
The provision is now part of an overall defense budget bill making its way through Congress.
At the time, McCain said buying biofuel at $26 per gallon, the amount the Navy spent last year for 450,000 gallons of biofuels for this week’s demonstration, isn’t in line with priorities of pursuing energy technology that reduces fuel demand and saves lives.
The Navy, along with the U.S. Departments of Energy and Agriculture, is spending more than $500 million in pursuit of biofuels and other alternative-energy sources like solar and geothermal.
The nearly $12 million purchase on the fuel for the demonstration came at a time when the Navy was spending just below $4 per gallon for traditional marine and jet fuel, according to Navy energy officials.
The price has dipped dramatically since then, but is expected to rise to about $3.60 by the time the next fiscal year begins.
Mabus said the price of biofuels and other alternative sources will go down dramatically if the military makes massive purchases.
Private industries, including the commercial airline industry, are interested and will join to help lower market prices, he said.