'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.

By washingtonpost.com |  September 9, 2008; 1:09 PM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

You said:

"as a strategist I acknowledge that we need to be able to fuel our military with resources which are beyond the control"

While an interesting THEORETICAL discussion, this isn't really much of a practical issue. The US importants billions of barrels of oil per year from a dozen different countries on every continent. Additionally, we have significant domestic oil resources and a 1 billion barrel strategic reserve. The military only uses a very smal portion of this, and noticably less so when we aren't actually invading anyone.

So there is a NEED to use synthethetic fuels only when all our domestic resources are drained, our reserve is drained, and EVERY OTHER OIL PRODUCER is cut off (including local producers like Canada and Mexico).

As for "energy independence," again, we import BILLIONS of barrels. Why must the most-complex use (jet fuel) be first? Instead, we should focus on the low-hanging fruit of efficiency, conservation and alternative energy (wind, solar and nuclear). No, this will not get us ALL the way to "independence." And eventually, we will have to look at the 2% of energy that is imported for jet fuel. But that is such a long-distance problem that it is absurd to discuss it right now. You've noticed a traffic light is out in LA, but you are still stuck in traffic in Brooklyn.

Posted by: Bill | September 9, 2008 2:32 PM

How upset at us would the rest of the world have to be before nobody would sell us anymore oil?
I might suggest, if things ever reached that juncture, the last thing we'd want to be doing is invading other countries (other nations find that a really irritating and ultimately destabilizing habit).

Posted by: Dijetlo | September 9, 2008 5:43 PM

Remember, please, that my job is to consider the "worst case scenario." If you lived in 1910, you really could not likely envision the "unrestricted submarine warfare" of 1916/17, let alone the view that greeted Americans in Jan/Feb '42 as ship after ship went up in flames within swimming distance of our beaches on the East Coast, right?

I believe this addresses both of your points. You are both thinking in terms of broad global peace time. I, on the other hand, am supposed to focus on what happens when all that nice peace goes up in flames.

I do not hope for it. Indeed, I despise the idea. But I do plan for the possibility. It's sort of my job, non?

Bob Bateman

And in both those cases "the world" wasn't upset with us...just two countries were. And it only took one of them to cripple our trans-Atlantic shipping.

Now no, I am not suggesting that we will see the same thing again. But it's prudent not to assume that "the oil will always be there for us in a time of war."

Posted by: Bob Bateman | September 9, 2008 7:44 PM

I would agree that Congress should not arbitrarily close off a promising defense technology. But so long as low carbon fuels are available at a reasonable price, isn't it appropriate for Congress to mandate that the federal government use the least polluting option feasible and not contribute excessive global warming gases?

However, any such standard would have to take into account the price of both low carbon fossil fuels and high carbon fossil fuels such as these "Fischer-Tropsch" fuels or energy-intensive ethanols.

This balancing act b/w different fossil fuels strikes me as a dynamic process better suited to DOD or DOE regulations than to a blanket prohibition by Congress.

The US Government is a large consumer of resources and isn't it possible that the US might exacerbate global warming if it recklessly produced "dirty" or high carbon coal-derived gasoline (as a sop to the coal industry)?

P.S. Could I have a reference to the bill number (or public law number if it was passed) for "last December's broad energy bill"?

Posted by: Safety Neal | September 9, 2008 9:42 PM

Water is the ultimate recycled comodity. Given enough energy, we will never have a water problem. Just use it and use it and...

As for the worst climate event - think about the next ice age. Then you will be able to decide if our warming process is good or bad. Ignore ice ages and you have simplified the debate to a point of madness. One must consider all the possibilities to be rational.

Posted by: Gary E. Masters | September 10, 2008 5:47 AM

First, good to see intel-dump up and running again, yay!

What strikes me with the problem is that it is approached from the wrong angle, a symptomatic one instead of a structural one. So much of the current fuel usage in the west is structurally unsound. Take Cargo-hauling using airplanes: Here in Norway fish is sent halfway round the world for refinement then shipped back to the original point and sold, due to the fact that airtraffic-cost is so ridicolously low.

And the whole "Drill, baby, drill" scene is also in my opinion looking the wrong direction. WHat is needed is a NASA like endeavour to find new and alternative energy sources, for fuel and electricity both. Starting drilling in the (melting) icecaps is a cosmetic approach to a fundamental problem. If the whole political climate wasnt so intensly election-cycle oriented, this could possibly be solved within ten years. UN mandate for solar-shields on artificial islands! Windmills in Sahara! New battery tech! But instead, its "Drill, Baby, drill" and "bomb bomb bomb Iran", because thats what the lads in the colosseum want.

(On the other hand, now that y`all are going to bomb Iran and start a new cold war with Russia while taking on Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq as well in 9 months time, I guess the problems do become more short term...)

Posted by: fnord | September 10, 2008 6:56 AM

seems silly not to develop a synthetic base for a limited purpose (defense needs); remember having to develop synthetic rubber for world war 2? even if petroleum products are available, their transportation to the united states could be impacted in a wartime scenario (or by mining ports). having the technology available in a commercial quantity seems a no brainer regardless of emissions.

Posted by: james p | September 10, 2008 11:21 AM


Hey, I am *all for* developing alternative energy sources. Hell, the whole US Military is on that binge, particularly considering the number of casualties we have taken shipping things like fuel around Iraq. Wind, Solar, whatever. So long as it unties me from the need to protect fuel convoys, I think it's great.

But B52s are not, and cannot be, solar powered. And that's the rub.

Last I checked the USAF spends something like $7 BILLION a year on fuel. Now in the grand scheme of things that might not seem like a lot to some of you, but it represents a significant percentage of total US consumption. (Overall the US military uses, I understand, something like 1.5% of all the fuel used by the US.) A $10 increase in the price of a barrel of oil means a huge increase in our fuel bill, which you in turn, pay. So there is more than one dimension in all of this, in addition to the complexities of what happens when the fuel supply is cut off or interdicted.

With regard,

Bob Bateman

Posted by: Bob Bateman | September 10, 2008 11:33 AM

"Remember, please, that my job is to consider the "worst case scenario.""

That's a bit of a cop-out, isn't it? If you work only worst-case scenarios, lets here your plan for the zombie attack. Quit wasting time with jet fuel...

Seriously, to do worst case planning, you need some more elements:

1) How likely is this worst case scenario;
2) What other answers to this scenario won't address the problem (like expanding the strategic petroleum reserve - easy, cheap (sorta), and low-polluting); and
3) And what OTHER worst case scenarios are there that are more immediate, more likely, or more addressable.

You didn't address the underlying questions of worst-case-scenarying, so I think it's fair for people to call out some your gaps without you just claiming to be the only one thinking about the bad stuff.

Posted by: Bill M | September 11, 2008 5:02 PM

Dude, seriously, my buddies and I actually spend the off-hours talking about how to fight "World War Z." (Ummm, there might be some beer involved. Maybe a little scotch as well.)

But that is in our free time.

Perhaps it might relieve you of some concern if you knew that the US Military is already way WAY ahead of the vast majority of civil society in "going green." We are already fielding (not "investigating" not "considering") completely "green" systems which provide field units with electricity created by wind and solar power. But like I said, B-52s and C-17s cannot fly on solar power. They need jet fuel, like all jets do, and that is not negotiable.

Because that is not negotiable, and because twice in the past 90 years we have had outside nations attempt to completely cut off our national supply lines (which makes this something more recurrent than just my "worst case scenario") we have to plan for that.

Planning for less does not help as much. If you plan for the worst you can use some lesser percentage of your plan to overcome lesser challenges. The same is not true in reverse.

Posted by: Bill M | September 11, 2008 6:13 PM

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