ABOARD THE USS NIMITZ — Some 100 nautical miles northeast of Oahu in the Pacific Ocean, a fleet of U.S. Navy fighter jets slings from the deck of the U.S.S. Nimitz aircraft carrier, 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 upon 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 U.S.S. Nimitz on Wednesday. “We’re not doing it for any other reason except it takes care of a military vulnerability that we have.”
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 House planned to vote Thursday on its version of the $608 billion defense spending bill, which cuts $70 million from the Obama administration’s request for domestic development of biofuels production, while adding millions for submarines and Navy destroyers that the Pentagon didn’t request.
The Senate Armed Services Committee last month narrowly passed an amendment to its version of the bill. The provision, pushed by Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, would prohibit military spending on alternative fuels if their costs exceed the cost of traditional fossil fuels.
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 Navy is still pressing ahead with its goal of getting half its fuel from alternative sources by 2020.
Two senators on the Armed Services Committee, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Republican Susan Collins of Maine, have vowed to try to change the defense bill once it reaches the Senate floor.