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January 9, 2013

The Top Ten Energy Questions Senator Hagel Needs to Answer

January 9, 2013
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While much attention has been focused on Senator Hagel’s love (or lack thereof) for Israel, his tenure as Secretary of Defense could also dramatically affect the military’s energy-related policies.  In that vein, senators weighing his confirmation should make sure he answers the following ten questions:

10.  Last year, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus declared a goal of getting half of the Navy’s non-nuclear fuel needs by renewable energy sources by 2020.  The most visible effort so far to that end has been the Great Green Fleet, a demonstration project where non-nuclear escort ships ran on biofuels in July 2012.   At a time when thousands of jobs in the defense industry are in jeopardy due to proposed budget cuts, should the Navy continue buying biofuels for nearly $27 per gallon instead of paying under $4 per gallon for conventional fuel?

9.  A major part of the rationale behind the Great Green Fleet is “energy security”, the idea that, in the event of war, the U.S. military should not be dependent on foreign sources of energy.  The U.S. is forecast to be the single largest oil producer by 2020.   The Strategic Petroleum Reserve – 727 million barrels of crude oil – is billed as a “national defense fuel reserve” by the Department of Energy.  If energy security is still part of the justification for the Great Green Fleet, isn’t it an expensive and unnecessary redundancy?

8.  In the past, Senator Hagel has advocated for the U.S. to use more alternative fuels as a way to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and forestall climate change.  However, a number of environmental organizations have suggested that the production and use of algal biofuels may actually emit more CO2 than using an equivalent amount of petroleum.  Should mitigation of climate change be a goal of the Defense Department and, if so, should the department continue to use algal biofuels?

7.  Senator Hagel voted against additional sanctions on Iran and has advocated “direct, unconditional and comprehensive talks with the Government of Iran.”   The Jerusalem Post recently reported that Iran has suffered a 40% decline in oil sales over the last nine months in the wake of heavier sanctions by the U.S. and EU.  Have those policies, which Senator Hagel opposed, been strategically successful?

6.  Many humanitarians and economists are concerned about the use of agricultural crops for fuel, which drives up the price of foodstuffs and creates political instability worldwide.  The connection to corn-ethanol biofuels is obvious, but even the algae-based biofuels generated by Solazyme and used by the U.S. military require sugar and other feedstock, putting upward pressure on food prices.  This is such a serious problem that even environmental groups like Friends of the Earth warn against the military’s adoption of biofuels from algae.

Given that the U.S. military is often tasked with humanitarian missions, are biofuel programs like the Great Green Fleet counterproductive because of their effect on hunger and social stability in impoverished nations?

5.  Part of the rationale for alternative energy adoption by the U.S. military was that it would reduce casualties on the battlefield by reducing the number of fuel convoys.   Yet many of the biofuels being advocated as replacements for petroleum would require the same convoys, perhaps even more.  The energy content of ethanol, for example, is about a third lower than the energy content of petroleum.

Since these alternative fuels not only cost more, but also have less energy content, does it make sense to pursue a policy that means more convoys at greater expense and a greater threat to our soldiers?

4.  In a 2008 biography, Senator Hagel was quoted as advocating for a new international treaty on CO2 emissions, in part because the international community was seen as clamoring for such a treaty.  Specifically, he said, “[Prime Minister Tony Blair] wants to try to engage us in some common ground so the United States can be seen in the world as helping lead the effort rather than obstructing it . . . Here’s the U.S., the biggest polluter, the wealthiest nation, pushing everybody around unilaterally.”

The UN Climate Change conferences in Doha and Copenhagen have repeatedly failed to come up with an internationally acceptable agreement.  Now that Japan, Russia, and Canada have withdrawn from the Kyoto protocol, the remaining nations subject to binding emission reductions only emit 15% of world CO2 emissions.  Is there any international consensus on steps to take for climate change mitigation and, if not, should the U.S. military take on that task “unilaterally”?

3.  As a senator, Chuck Hagel co-sponsored the “25 by ’25” resolution calling for the United States to produce 25% of its energy from renewable sources, including solar, wind, and biofuels by 2025.  If renewable energy subsidies are cut in the U.S. and the renewable industry is failing to compete with conventional energy sources, should the U.S. military spend its limited funds on expensive renewable energy to reach the 25 by ’25 mark?

2.  In the past, Senator Hagel advocated for tax incentives and loan guarantees as ways to spur the development of alternative energies.  After the scandals involving Solyndra and other Department of Energy loan guarantee recipients, should the Defense Department continue to subsidize biofuel companies like Solazyme when even the National Research Council says that biofuels are not sustainable?

1.  When Senator Hagel advocated against the adoption of the Kyoto Treaty in the late 90’s, he said that it was “not fair” for developed countries like the United States to cut emissions while developing countries, including China, the world’s largest CO2 emitter, would not commit to binding cuts.  None of the major developing countries have shown a willingness to enter a binding international treaty since then, and currently only 15% of world CO2 emissions are covered by the treaty.  Is it fair now for American taxpayers pay for biofuels or other alternative energies for our military when those measures will not meaningfully affect global emissions or climate change?

Jack Thorlin (JD, Harvard ’12) is a 2012-13 legal fellow with the Institute for Energy Research. Thorlin’s first novel, Stand of Knights, tells story of a group of American soldiers fighting to protect Taiwan and preserve a last bastion of freedom in the 21st century.


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