The House Armed Services Committee’s newly proposed 2013 Pentagon budget contains a provision that would prevent the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) from purchasing alternative fuels, largely in the form of biofuels, if they cost more than traditional fuels. The proposal comes at a time when the military is ramping up its use of biofuels and the U.S. biofuel industry could use the certainty provided by a customer as large and influential as DoD.

An example of DoD’s alternative fuels efforts:  In 2009, the navy announced a plan that would have the navy utilize 50% non-oil energy in its operations by 2020, and the air force has been testing jets that use biofuel-jet fuel blends. Some have argued that such programs give the military greater operational flexibility.

However, such programs can be costly, as contemporary biofuels often cost more than oil-based fuel. Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) questioned Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in a hearing in February, asking “Shouldn’t we refocus our priorities and make [having more vehicles] our priorities instead of advancing a biofuels market? You’re not the secretary of the energy. You’re the secretary of the Navy.”

At a Senate Subcommittee on Water and Power hearing in March, Secretary Mabus answered Rep. Forbes’ question. “It’s a false choice to say that we should concentrate on more ships versus a different kind of fuel. If we don’t get a different kind of fuel, if we don’t have a secure domestic supply of energy at an affordable price… the ships and the planes may not be able to be used because we can’t get the fuel.”  Mabus added that when oil price increases by $1, it costs the navy $31 million. The price of biofuels decreased by half since 2009. [Wired]

Why is the Department of Defense interested in alternative energy? Do the costs of military investment in alternative energy sources outweigh its potential benefits?