WASHINGTON—When chatter on Capitol Hill ramps up about kicking "526" to the curb, it doesn't mean legislators are intent on obliterating May 26 from the calendar.
Instead, it refers to a tiny but significant section of an overarching energy measure that has irked lawmakers from coal and oil states since it was signed by President George W. Bush in 2007.
Briefly, what's known as Section 526 of the Energy Independence and Security Act blocks federal agencies from contracting for fuels that spew more carbon pollution than conventional petroleum.
As has been the case since its inception, representatives and senators are once again trying to dump the exemption via their respective chambers.
On the House side, for instance, several Department of Defense- and Department of Agriculture-related appropriations and authorization bills contain a provision to repeal Section 526. And Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming is looking for openings to tack a similar amendment onto legislation in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
While repeal proponents tout their efforts as being about freedom of fuel choices and not compromising military readiness, opponents frame it as an attempt to boost dirtier fuels such as heavy crude mined from the Canadian oil sands, and liquid coal and oil shale, and hinder biofuels, a growing sector of the American economy.
Climate watchdogs count it as one more assault among a lengthy list of initiatives with an anti-environment bent.
"We have a policy in place signed by President George W. Bush," Phyllis Cuttino, director of the clean energy program at the Pew Environment Group, told SolveClimate News in an interview.
"This constant chipping away at previous policy, trying to roll it back, it just really causes consternation and uncertainty in the market. And what we hear time and time again that what industry needs is some form of certainty."
Military Opposes Repeal
Numerous representatives from the Department of Defense, the federal government's largest consumer of energy, have assured Congress that the existing law has not prevented branches of the military from meeting their mission.
For instance, in a July 12 letter, one military official told Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico that the department has successfully purchased biofuels in compliance with the law.
"Repeal or exemption could hamper the department's efforts to provide better energy options to our warfighters and further increase America’s reliance on non-renewable fuels," wrote Elizabeth King, assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs. "Our dependence on those types of types of fuels degrades our national security, negatively impacts our economy, and harms the environment."
Bingaman chaired an Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing centered on Section 526 in early June.
In a memo posted on the panel's website, Sharon Burke, a top energy official at the Pentagon, points out that every $1 rise on the price of a barrel of oil translates to an increased tab of $130 million during the span of a year for a military. The military uses roughly 300,000 barrels of oil daily.
"Department of Defense personnel are well aware of the security and economic consequences of U.S. and global dependence on oil, trends that will get worse with time," Burke wrote, adding that the military is pursuing alternatives such as solar, wind, advanced batteries and storage, biofuels, coal biomass to liquids, waste to energy and marine energy. "As we seek energy security and independence, we don't want to trade one security challenge for another."
For example, she added that the military is focused on global warming, especially after the Pentagon's 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review warned that while climate change alone does not cause conflict, it "may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world." That same review pointed out that the military would likely be called upon for disaster response and humanitarian assistance in response to extreme weather events worldwide.
In other similar types of reports, security experts have warned how severe weather incidents caused by global warming could make vulnerable parts of the world even more unstable. Lower-carbon fuels could mitigate these risks, they concluded.
Facts or Politics?
Interestingly, Robert Dillon, communications director for Republicans on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, argues that it's only the Pentagon's political appointees who oppose the repeal. And he said he is dumbfounded by claims it would limit the military's efforts to diversify fuel supplies.
"Let's be clear," he wrote in a Wednesday update issued to reporters. "Repealing Section 526 would not … require the military to focus on any particular type of fuel. Instead, it would allow them to choose the most cost-effective resource that meets their operational requirements. If that's biofuels, terrific. If it's something better, also terrific. Those are the facts, the rest is politics."