This is going to help the Defense Department weather looming budget cuts, for sure. Teaming up with the Department of Agriculture (which has a cheery Rotary Club ring to it), the Navy has purchased 450,000 gallons of biofuel for about $16 a gallon, or about 4 times the price of its standard marine fuel, JP-5, which has been going for under $4 a gallon.
You won’t be surprised to learn that a member of Obama’s presidential transition team, T. J. Glauthier, is a “strategic advisor” at Solazyme, the California company that is selling a portion of the biofuel to the Navy. Glauthier worked – shock, shock – on the energy-sector portion of the 2009 stimulus bill.
The Navy sale isn’t Solazyme’s first trip to the public trough, of course. The company got a $21.8 million grant from the 2009 stimulus package.
Solazyme’s partner in the biofuel sale is Dynamic Fuels, a Louisiana company owned jointly by Tyson Foods and Tulsa-based Syntroleum. Tyson and Syntroleum are distinguished by having profitable lines of business that do not rely on government grants to unprofitable “green” projects. This does not make their biofuel product price-competitive with fossil fuels, however. (They were induced to develop biofuel manufacturing processes by a combination of subsidies and tax breaks.)
The Dynamic Fuels plant was opened for business in Geismar, LA in 2010, becoming by far the largest biofuels plant in North America – and reportedly, in combination with a plant in Finland, a producer of 94% of the world’s biofuels. This is great boosterism stuff, but the biofuels produced by Dynamic Fuels are still considerably more expensive than the fossil-fuel alternative. Dynamic Fuels has begun supplying aviation biofuel to KLM, the Dutch flag carrier, but of course, the use of more-expensive biofuels by commercial carriers has to be subsidized by governments.
If governments stopped subsidizing biofuels, their artificial “profitability” would disappear overnight. Price-wise, they can’t compete with fossil fuels. The day may come when they can, but subsidizing them while they don’t is not a method with any record of success for encouraging price efficiency. What it does instead is create languishing public dependencies and tremendous opportunities for cronyism, as demonstrated in the Solyndra scandal.
As the Institute for Energy Research article (top link) indicates, the US has enormous reserves of both conventional and unconventional oil and natural gas resources. Opening them up for exploitation would, among other things, ensure that the US armed forces could buy cheaper fuel – cheaper than today’s prices – produced in the USA. At a time when federal debt is spiraling and the Defense Department is facing budget cuts that are guaranteed to gut the fighting forces and render them ineffective, it seems to border on insane to eschew a ready, significantly cheaper alternative and require the armed services to quadruple what they pay for fuel as a proof of concept – apparently with the idea that the forces should buy more of the 4-times-as-expensive fuel. This is, after all, our national security we’re talking about.