Republicans take aim at government ban on coal liquids, oil sands crude
Fuel Fix – July 20, 2011
A showdown is looming Thursday over a Republican plan that would give the Defense Department the freedom to power its planes and tanks with alternative fuels — even if they produce more greenhouse gas emissions than their more conventional cousins.
At issue is a provision in a 2007 energy law that bars the federal government from buying alternative or synthetic transportation fuels if they would produce more greenhouse gas emissions over their entire life cycles from production to combustion than conventional petroleum-based options.
Although the measure was originally aimed at shutting the government’s door to synthetic oil made from coal, critics say the ban now also is preventing the Pentagon from buying fuels refiners produce using heavy oil sands crude harvested in Alberta, Canada.
Momentum for repealing the measure has been building on Capitol Hill all year, especially in the House, which included a rollback in legislation authorizing the Defense Department that passed in May. Earlier this month as part of a debate on a Defense Department spending bill, the House adopted an amendment by Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas, that would bar the Pentagon from using any of the federal dollars for following the four-year-old ban.
Now the fight has moved to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which is voting on oil and gas legislation and an offshore drilling safety bill Thursday.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., is poised to offer an amendment that would repeal the four-year-old alternative fuel ban, over the objections of several panel Democrats.
Senators who support the proposal argue that it will give U.S. military an array of options for fueling its tankers, planes and other equipment — without unfairly walling off some domestic energy sources.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., has signaled he may support Barrasso’s proposal, in part because of his concern about coal liquids, which are now off limits.
Committee chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., has said he is concerned about the “high environmental cost” of repealing the 2007 energy law’s so-called Sec. 526 provision.
Environmental groups argued that repealing Sec. 526 would stymie critical research and development of advanced biofuels, given the military’s leadership on the issue.
And, they insist that repeal would undermine the nation’s long-term national security interests, given the United States’ current dependence on foreign oil.
On July 12, the Defense Department added its voice to the chorus. In a letter to Bingaman, Assistant Defense Secretary Elizabeth King insisted that “the existing law has not prevented the department from meeting . . . critical mission needs.” Instead, she argued, repeal “could hamper the department’s efforts to provide better energy options to our warfighters and further increase America’s reliance on non-renewable fuels.”
That’s a turnaround from the Defense Department’s view in 2008, when the Pentagon’s general counsel sent Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., a separate letter warning that Sec. 526 could create “significant problems” and would “discourage the development of new sources . . . of energy supplies for the Armed Forces.” The Defense Department warned at the time that the ban could bar the U.S. from refueling at Canadian commercial airports, so long as that fuel contained oil sands crude.
The Defense Department has invested in an array of programs to boost efficiency and its use of low-carbon biofuels.
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