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Senate panel reins in Pentagon on clean energy

Friday - 5/25/2012, 4:34pm  ET

By DONNA CASSATA
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Pentagon's investment in green energy requires too much green paper for some in Congress.

A sharply divided Senate Armed Services Committee voted this week to prohibit the military from spending money on alternative fuels if the cost exceeds traditional fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas and oil. The move underscores congressional concern about the greater expense of clean energy sources such as biofuels as the Pentagon wrestles with smaller budgets. The committee, in crafting a sweeping defense budget for next year, also voted to block Pentagon construction of a biofuels refinery or any other facility to refine biofuels.

Both efforts passed on 13-12 votes that were disclosed Friday.

"In a tough budget climate for the Defense Department, we need every dollar to protect our troops on the battlefield with energy technologies that reduce fuel demand and save lives," said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee. "Spending $26 per gallon of biofuel is not consistent with that goal. The committee's action corrects this misplacement of priorities."

The moves by the Senate panel follow even tougher steps in the Republican-controlled House challenging the Pentagon's investment in clean energy. That version of the defense bill would bar the military from buying alternative fuels if the cost exceeds traditional fossil fuels. The bill also exempts the Pentagon from some requirements under the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which is designed to increase production of clean renewable fuels.

The law stipulates that if a federal department or agency uses alternative fuels, they cannot produce more greenhouse gases than regular petroleum.

In threatening to veto the House bill, the White House said it objected to provisions that would affect the Defense Department's "ability to procure alternative fuels and would further increase American reliance on fossil fuels, thereby contributing to geopolitical instability and endangering our interests aboard."

The department is the nation's largest consumer of energy, spending about $15 billion last year on fuel for tanks, ships, aircraft and other operations. In Afghanistan, the military uses more than 50 million gallons of fuel each month.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently said higher fuel costs have hit the Pentagon hard, creating a budget shortfall of more than $3 billion.

The Navy and Air Force have pushed to use more biofuels to operate its aircraft and ships, with military leaders suggesting a greater reliance on alternative sources in the next decade to ease dependence on foreign oil.

The Pentagon is pushing for $1.4 billion in next year's budget for investments in clean energy, including hybrid electric drives for ships, more efficient engines, better generators and solar power.

"As one of the largest landowners and energy consumers in the world, our drive is to be more efficient and environmentally sustainable," Panetta said in a speech earlier this month to the Environmental Defense Fund. "We have to be able to have the potential to transform the nation's approach to the challenges we are facing in the environment and energy security. We've got to look ahead to try to see how we can best achieve that."

Panetta went as far as to suggest that environmental threats stand as threats to national security.

"The area of climate change has a dramatic impact on national security: Rising sea levels, to severe droughts, to the melting of the polar caps, to more frequent and devastating natural disasters all raise demand for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief," he said.

Days later, Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe challenged Panetta's comments.

"Secretary Panetta has a real war to win, and he should not be wasting time perpetrating President Obama's global warming fantasies or his ongoing war on affordable energy," said the Oklahoma lawmaker. "At a time when the defense budget is being significantly reduced and the Pentagon is forced to make every dollar stretch even further, it is ludicrous for the DOD to spend billions of dollars on green energy projects. Instead, they should be using those funds on people, training and equipment."

It was Inhofe and McCain, who successfully pushed for the amendments limiting Pentagon investments in clean energy.


(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)