Obama’s Great Green Fleet
The president forces the Navy to purchase expensive and dubiously green biofuel.


Andrew Stiles

One might assume, or at least hope, that the fallout over the $535 million Solyndra loan scandal would make the Obama administration think twice before lavishing more taxpayer dollars on politically connected “green energy” firms. Not in the slightest.

The administration’s latest boondoggle involves the use of executive authority to essentially force the U.S. Navy to buy 450,000 gallons of “alternative” biofuel, at the bargain-counter rate of just $15 per gallon. It is the largest federal purchase of biofuel in U.S. history. The massive “investment” is part of President Obama’s broader biofuel initiative, announced in August, on which he envisions spending $510 million over the next three years to support the use of biofuel in military and commercial transportation.

Although the bulk of that funding will require Congressional approval (which it probably won’t get), the White House is charging ahead with this $12 million deal with the Navy — using the Defense Department’s procurement authority as leverage — as part of its recently announced (and widely mocked) “We Can’t Wait” campaign. “This is not work we can afford to put off for another day,” declared Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack earlier this month.

The fuel, a mixture of petroleum and processed algae oil, will be used to power the “Great Green Fleet Carrier Strike Force” (not a parody) during the Navy’s summer 2012 exercises in the Pacific Rim. The name is another nod to Teddy Roosevelt, whose Great White Fleet, which was actually painted white, circumnavigated the globe between 1907 and 1909 to show off the United States’ expanding naval capability.

In this case, the Obama administration seems to be trying to showcase its unfailing commitment to costly, inefficient sources of energy. At a time when the Defense Department is facing cuts of up to $1 trillion over the next ten years — the Navy recently had to lay off some 3,000 sailors — the administration has determined that shelling out $15 a gallon for biofuel is a smart use of our limited resources. That’s 375 percent more expensive than the standard JP-5 fuel the Navy uses, which typically costs around $4 per gallon, a hefty premium regardless, but even harder to justify when algae-based biofuel may not be that “green” after all. A University of Virginia study recently concluded that though such fuels “offer a higher level of energy output and require a minimum level of land area to develop, the production of such fuels results in significantly more environmental degradation.”

Such was also the case with Solyndra; the production process for the company’s “thin-film” photovoltaic solar panels was not only expensive, but also very energy-intensive. As are most forms of solar-panel production. From the New York Times:

The manufacture of polysilicon [a primary ingredient in most solar panels] requires enormous amounts of energy — so much electricity that it typically takes the first year of operation of the panel to generate as much power as was required to make the polysilicon in it. The process requires superheating large volumes of material in electric-arc furnaces, including the melting of quartzite rock at more than 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit….

China’s own polysilicon industry is controversial because it relies heavily on electricity generated by coal-fired power plants, and because weak environmental controls at Chinese polysilicon factories have resulted in toxic spills that have fouled streams and rivers.

Recall that a common Democratic defense of the Solyndra loan is that such large-scale “investment” in solar technology is necessary in order to compete with China for industry dominance. The similarities between Solyndra and the “Great Green Fleet” boondoggle don’t end there.

Just as Solyndra relied on extensive political connections to secure federal support, the same crony-capitalist spirit appears to have driven this biofuel deal. The Navy will purchase a portion of the fuel from the California-based company Solazyme. The alternative-energy firm already received a $22 million grant in 2009 as part of the stimulus package, and now appears to be reaping the rewards of employing T. J. Glauthier, a member of the president’s transition team, as a “strategic adviser.” Coincidentally enough, Glauthier worked primarily on the “energy” portion of the stimulus bill.

Before joining Solazyme, Glauthier served on the advisory board of SunRun, a solar financing company that received a $7 million grant as part of a program created by the stimulus bill that he helped craft.

Administration officials have defended the biofuel program in the name of “energy independence.” But given the president’s willingness to bypass Congress to pursue such dubious “green” projects, while simultaneously threatening to veto legislation to jumpstart construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, it is hard to take them seriously.

— Andrew Stiles is the Franklin Center’s 2011 Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow.