Congress torpedoes Navy, Pentagon agrofuel plans

By Richard Brenneman, Cross-posted from Eats, Shoots ‘n Leaves

Both houses have approved legislation that blocks the Navy from buying agrofuels — petroleum substitutes derived from plants, typically grown on industrial Third World plantations — unless they cost no more than conventional fuels.

Their action also bars the Pentagon from funding agrofuel refineries, a major blow to the Obama administration embrace of plant-based fuels, driven largely by Energy Secretary Steve Chu.

It was Chu who, during his tenure as head of the Alwrence Berkeley National Laboratory, played a leading role in winning UC Berkeley that $500 million BP agrofuel research grant and shifted research at the Department of Energy lab toward agrofuel research.

The Pentagon’s agrofuel efforts were initially shaped by Air Force Gen. Charles Wald, the same general also responsible for drafting plans for Africom, the Pentagon’s command for controlling the continent which has seen an ongoing wave of land acquisitions by agofuel corporations.

Just how important is the Pentagon’s agrofuel agenda? Swell, consider one simple fact: The world’s largest single consumer of oil is the U.S. military.

Oh, and the Pentagon’s biggest oil supplier? That would be BP.

The story from Noah Shachtman, writing at Wired’s Danger Room:

The Navy’s ambitious renewable energy plans aren’t sunk quite yet. But they took a major hit Thursday, when the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to all-but-ban the military from buying alternative fuels.

The House Armed Services Committee passed a similar measure earlier this month. But the House is controlled by Republicans, who are generally skeptical of alternative energy efforts. Democrats are in charge of the Senate Armed Services Committee. And if anything, the Senate’s alt-fuel prohibition goes even further than the House’s. If it becomes law, if would not only sink the Navy’s attempt to sail a “Great Green Fleet,” powered largely by biofuels. It would also sabotage a half-billion dollar program to shore up a tottering biofuels industry.

Like their counterparts in the House, senators prohibited the Pentagon from buying renewable fuels that are more expensive than traditional ones — a standard that biofuels many never meet. In addition, the committee blocked the Defense Department from helping build biofuel refineries unless “specifically authorized by law” – just as the Navy was set to pour $170 million into an effort with the Departments of Energy and Agriculture to do precisely that.

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Like their counterparts in the House, senators prohibited the Pentagon from buying renewable fuels that are more expensive than traditional ones — a standard that biofuels may never meet. In addition, the committee blocked the Defense Department from helping build biofuel refineries unless “specifically authorized by law” – just as the Navy was set to pour $170 million into an effort with the Departments of Energy and Agriculture to do precisely that.

Read the rest.

What might the impact of the Congressional action be?

Consider the case of Amyris, the local company started by Chu protégé and former employee Jay Keasling with the help of some Bill Gates money.

Amyris hopes to make synfuel with the help of genetically engineered microbes, but the diesel fuel they’ve churned out costs a whopping $29 a gallon, no sale under the pending legislation.

If the measure makes it into law, we can expect a major shakeup in the already rickety agrofuel industry.

Amyris, which has been struggling with low stock prices since peaking last year at $33.85, only to fall to $1.57 last week, has managed to make it back up to $2.65 as we write, slightly about the company’s liquidation price, if you don’t factor in that$150 million or more they’d have to pay their major investor if it all falls apart.

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