'Synthetic Says What?'
By Robert Bateman
I believe that global climate change is a planetary situation caused by human behavior. (I also believe that those who claim that it is not -- well, they generally do not know what they are talking about.) This belief, from a strategic point of view, is the safest bet because one must always plan for the worst-case scenario, and man-made climate change is just that.
This puts me in a bit of a quandary, though, because I am also committed to energy independence. I hold this position for both economic reasons and also because as a strategist I acknowledge that we need to be able to fuel our military with resources which are beyond the control of other people and nations. But the real problem is in the reconciliation between energy independence and curbing climate change. Which is more critical? Is it more important that we have our own fuel for our military (mostly for the Air Force) ...or is the most critical thing preventing the change in the environment?
Why does the latter matter? Well, because even moderate climate changes almost certainly will result in massive fluctuations and migrations of human settlement -- people will be looking for a particularly vital resource, and the distribution of that resource will change as the climate radically fluctuates.
Some places will get cooler, some places will get hotter, but the bottom line is that in either event the distribution of water will change, and that is a very big deal. I do not see how it can not lead to war.
So, now to the dilemma.
Right now the US Air Force is testing and certifying some synthetic fuels so that they can be used in their aircraft. The USAF has already tested these fuels on the B-52 and C-17 aircraft, and they seem to be on track to try these fuels in the engines of the entire inventory. That, in theory, would seem to be a good thing, right? If we use synthetic fuels derived from coal or natural gas, specifically through a refining procedure known as the "Fischer-Tropsch" process, the result will be a decrease in our relative need for foreign oil. (This process basically cooks natural gas or coal under pressure, adds a catalyst, and results in a fuel which is pretty much like standard gasoline.)
But there is a problem.
The hiccup is that in the process of cooking the coal or natural gas to get a synthetic fuel you can use in a jet, you end up kicking a whole bunch of additional carbon dioxide out into the air. More carbon dioxide, in fact, than you do just using and burning the refined products you get from crude oil. In other words, we can be less dependent upon foreign sources, but at the same time we would be increasing our contribution to changes in temperature which will likely require us to commit military forces (which is never good) elsewhere.
In short, it appears that we are damned if we do and damned if we don't.
Yesterday the US Congress debated this issue, or at least they were supposed to do so. I have no idea how that came out. But the issue at hand is succinctly laid out this way by Environment and Energy Daily (sorry, it is behind a pay-per-view firewall):
Section 526 of last December's broad energy bill prevents federal agencies from buying alternative or synthetic fuels with higher lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than conventional petroleum fuels. The provision was aimed largely at military plans to buy coal-to-liquids fuels. But it has also raised questions about possible application to fuels produced at refineries that receive oil from Canada's oil sands.
In other words, despite the fact that the United States Air Force has been testing vigorously these fuels, they might not be able to buy them after all. This, I submit, is a debate we should all be watching. It is important. Either way the vote goes, the results will matter.
You can rant to me here.
The opinions stated here are the author's and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, the Army or any part of the government.
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