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."
To support his conclusion, Dillon sent along a three-year-old letter from the Pentagon's general counsel office. The two-page letter, dated July 2008, not only labels Section 526 as overly broad but also emphasizes how difficult it would be to track the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of non-domestically produced fuels.
"Section 526 has the potential to generate significant problems for DoD in its procurement of fuels for the national defense," the letter addressed to Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., stated. "It creates uncertainty about what fuels DoD can procure and will discourage the development of new sources, particularly reliable domestic sources, of energy supplies for the Armed Forces."
That letter referred to a previous attempt to block Section 526. This time around, Barrasso is leading the effort in the Senate via the American Alternative Fuels Act of 2011 (S.937). The bipartisan bill, introduced May 10, has GOP support from Wyoming's other senator, Mike Enzi, plus Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri, Dan Coats of Indiana and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is the sole Democratic co-sponsor. Other Republican senators have expressed interest in floating similar legislation.
Murkowski, the top Republican on the energy committee, voted for the 2007 comprehensive energy package. Barrasso, who joined the Senate just after its June vote on that energy package, opposed it during the final vote in December.
On the House side, an amendment folded into at least one appropriations bill for the fiscal year 2012 budget originated as legislation introduced by freshman Rep Morgan Griffith, R-Va., in late May.
Canada Urges Repeal
As expected, Canada wants to continue marketing its oil sands — Northeastern Alberta is referred to as the "Saudi Arabia" of diluted bitumen — to its southern neighbor.
So it's none too shocking that the former U.S. ambassador to Canada during the President George W. Bush administration is making the repeal of Section 526 a priority. David Wilkins is now a lobbyist for the Canadian oil producers.
The Hill, a Washington newspaper, reported July 18 that the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers has hired a firm where Wilkins now works called Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough.
"Our role is to advocate for Canadian energy and hopefully create a very positive environment for the Canadian oil-and-gas industry here in the United States," Wilkins is quoted as saying in the article.
The United States already imports the bulk of its oil from Canada. Plus, Alberta is recognized as having the world’s second-largest petroleum reserve, an estimated 1.71 trillion barrels of diluted bitumen. About 1.3 million barrels of crude are now produced daily in the oil sands, a number that is expected to more than double within the decade.
It's About Security
In early July, an official statement from the Pentagon made it clear that existing law has in no way prevented the department from meeting current mission needs. Plus, an array of prominent military officials has vociferously supported the one-paragraph Section 526 as a welcome ally in recent testimony before congressional committees.
For instance, retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Norman Seip said removing Section 526 would be a step backward for U.S. security and clean energy innovation.
And Thomas Hicks, the deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for energy called Section 526 an effective policy tool.
"The more we replace foreign sources of oil with more diverse, domestically produced alternative fuels, the better we are as a military and the better we are as a nation," Hicks said in June 3 testimony before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power.
Recently, the military has forged ahead with a slew of initiatives revolving around alternative liquid fuels. The Department of Defense consumes 1 percent of the nation's total energy and 2 percent of the country’s petroleum, according to Pew Environment Group statistics.
For instance, two years ago Navy Secretary Ray Mabus announced proposals for a Carrier Strike Group to sail on non-petroleum fuels by 2012 and to launch a Greta Green Fleet by 2016. In addition, the Navy and the Air Force have set 2016 as a deadline for half of their fuel supplies for fleets of fighters, bombers, transport planes and surface ships to be non-petroleum based blends.
"Biofuels will be cost-competitive within five years because there have been some real breakthroughs," Cuttino said, adding that a repeal of Section 526 would be a blow to the fledgling biofuels industry, the commercial airline business and U.S. taxpayers. "The Department of Defense can’t create the whole market but it can have significant pull."
The military isn’t necessarily switching from fossil fuels to more environmentally friendly sources because it’s a green enterprise, she noted. Primarily, authorities see the switch as a boon for long-term energy security and national security.
"This is trying to stop forward motion in American innovation," Cuttino said, referring to repeal efforts. "It could chill any potential advancements. Any attempt to roll back the clock to stop innovation is not good for the country."