The Navy’s Great Green Fleet staged an impressive show of force as it gears up for more battles — of a political nature — ahead.
This week, F/A-18 Hornets powered by a mix of petroleum biofuels roared off the deck of the USS Nimitz for the first time in a demonstration north of Hawaii. Some 71 jets and three warships in the strike group used conventional fuel combined with a blend of used cooking oil and algae oil as they took part in international war games with 22 nations.
(Related: “Quiz: What You Don’t Know About Biofuel“)
“Those aircraft are flying the way they always do. The ships steamed the way they always do. There was no difference with the fuel,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said from aboard the Nimitz, reported Reuters.
Mabus says the fuel, which doesn’t require changes to the military’s aircraft or ships, is safe and effective. But with a sticker price of $26 per gallon — four times the cost of conventional fuel — not everyone is on board with this move.
Vietnam war veteran and Republican Senator John McCain is among the program’s biggest critics, who argue that the military should not be involved in developing biofuel while dealing with economic crisis and spending cuts.
“I don’t believe it’s the job of the Navy to be involved in building … new technologies,” McCain said recently. “I don’t believe we can afford it.”
Other Republican lawmakers have drawn comparisons to Solyndra, the solar panel maker that the U.S. backed with $535 million loan guarantee before it went bankrupt.
The development of a Great Green Fleet is part of a larger Pentagon effort to use the military’s massive buying power to foster competition in the biofuels industry.
Heather Zichal, an adviser to the White House on energy and climate change, defended the Navy’s move toward biofuel. “We cannot keep what we’ve done in the past,” she said. “We can’t be timid about embracing new forms of energy like biofuels.”
Now, the Senate is preparing for a fight over whether to bar the military from buying biofuels that are more costly than petroleum. Republicans in Congress are out to upend Mabus’ plan to get half of the Navy’s energy from renewable sources by 2020.
“The Navy always said it’s not going to buy large amounts of these until they’re cost competitive,” Mabus said, according to The Hill. “But one of the ways [we make them cost competitive] is by the military providing the market for it, and we’ve done that with technology. If we only looked at nuclear costs, we wouldn’t have nuclear submarines.”
He says the Navy needs to stop depending on foreign sources for fossil fuel because it makes the military vulnerable.
In the meantime, naval leaders can enjoy their achievement.
Vice Admiral Philip Cullom, the deputy chief of naval operations for fleet readiness and logistics, was also aboard the Nimitz for this week’s testing.
“This is very much an historic moment,” said Cullom, Forbes reported. “We’re moving forward and we’re not going to let up. We can’t do nothing. Let’s do this.”