May 22, 2012John McCauley
For the second year in the row, the House GOP majority is seeking to curtail Pentagon investments in alternative sources of fuel. Republicans’ effort failed last year, but there is a strong chance that fossil fuel supporters might win this time, unless a more forceful argument is made in favor of clean-burning, renewable energy, said House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash.
“We have to fundamentally start to win the argument for why alternative energy matters,” Smith said May 22 in a conference call with reporters.
“The political environment is difficult” for green energy, Smith said.
Provisions passed by the House in the fiscal year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 4310) severely limit the Pentagon’s authority to purchase alternative fuels that cost more than fossil fuels. One amendment would exempt the Pentagon from legislation — passed in fiscal year 2007 under the Bush administration — that requires federal agencies buy only alternatives that are less polluting than fossil fuels. Another provision would include so-called clean coal and tar sands fuel as acceptable alternatives to petroleum.
Smith said the GOP position on DoD energy programs has hardened over the past several years, although he is still hopeful that the amendments in H.R. 4310 will be stripped when the bill is taken up by a House-Senate conference committee.
That is what happened a year ago, Smith said. “I was able to persuade [HASC Chairman Rep.] Buck McKeon, [and Senate Armed Services members] John McCain and Carl Levin that this was a significant policy shift and we shouldn’t just throw it in the conference report.” Smith said it took a large group of lawmakers to make this argument. “We needed many voices to say this is bad,” Smith said.
It’s hard to predict if a similar strategy will work this time, he added.
Renewable energy has suffered significant political setbacks in the past several years, he said. “We just have not convinced enough people about the need to start burning clean burning sources of energy.”
Too many Americans, he said, have bought the GOP argument that unless the United States starts drilling “every square inch for oil, gas prices will go up.”
The Pentagons’ biofuels program is costly, Smith acknowledged, but it should be seen as a long-term strategic investment so that clean alternatives to oil are available one day.
McKeon and other HASC Republicans have been adamant that Navy spending on biofuels is an unaffordable luxury as it drains funds from ship construction programs and naval readiness accounts. Some of the lawmakers who have opposed Navy biofuel efforts come from shipbuilding districts.
Smith agreed that members’ unhappiness with the Navy’s ship procurement budgets has become a lightning rod. But the energy standoff is more than just about ships, he said. “The GOP majority simply doesn’t buy into alternative energy policy as a philosophy,” he said. “They’re very pro fossil fuel. Promoting alternative fuel to them doesn’t make sense.” Adding more ships to the budget wouldn’t change that, he noted, although that is not an option that is being contemplated.
“Ships are expensive,” Smith said. “It don’t know that we’re in a position to cut that deal.”
If the goal were to find more money for ships, there is plenty of fat in the defense bill to do that, Smith said. H.R. 4310 is adding costly demands on the Pentagon to expand missile defense sites, for instance, he said. “They can find savings elsewhere to build ships.”
At this stage in the game, the Pentagon’s energy agenda only can be saved by stronger advocacy of what it means for the larger national energy future, Smith said.
“We’re simply trying to raise awareness that we need to reverse these amendments in the Senate and then in conference.”
A particularly tough hurdle will be to convince members to back away from including coal and tar sands as part of the alternative fuels mix, said Smith. Even “clean” coal has not been proven to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and tar sands do not make clean-burning fuel, he contended. Deliberations are likely to get ugly because they have to do with the contentious issue of climate change. “The Defense Department has said climate change is a national security issue,” said Smith. If the Pentagon has to choose between petroleum and other non-clean burning sources of fuel, that also undermines its agenda, he said.