Rand studies question synfuels' role in meeting military needs

The US Department of Defense can meet its fuel supply needs more effectively by using petroleum products more efficiently and protecting major transit corridors than by embracing synthetic fuels, three new Rand Corp. studies concluded.

Proponents contend that biofuels and other synthetics can provide US military services an alternative with fewer environmental impacts than crude oil and products from politically unstable suppliers. Prices also would not be as volatile, they add.

But Rand researchers concluded in the June 19 reports that alternative liquids do not offer DOD a way to appreciably reduce fuel costs.

The studies examined world oil market dynamics, energy security issues in Turkey and the Caspian Sea, and the US Air Force’s role in assisting the US Navy in protecting sea lanes from the Strait of Hormuz to Asia. A fourth volume examining energy security in Nigeria and other Gulf of Guinea nations will be published later.

James Bartis, a Rand senior policy researcher who wrote the first study, said that while DOD is one of the world’s largest fuel consumers, its approximately 340,000 b/d of consumption is less than 0.5% of total global petroleum demand.

Continued access likely

“Considering that the United States produces more than 8 million b/d domestically, there is no credible scenario in which the US military would be unable to access the supplies of fuels it needs to defend the nation,” he said.

Future crude oil prices can’t be predicted, the report emphasized. “Too often, military planners are afflicted with petroleum anxiety,” Bartis said. “They think prices are heading in only one direction: up. But history teaches us otherwise.”

Fuel prices could be “uncomfortably high” despite access to domestic production, he continued. Military services have one option left: Use less fuel, Bartis suggested.

This can be done by purchasing more energy-efficient equipment, by adopting more energy-efficient maneuver schemes, and by implementing other energy conservation measures, he said.

Alternative liquid fuels aren’t the answer, Bartis emphasized. “Pending a major technical breakthrough, renewable jet and marine fuels will continue to be far more expensive than petroleum-based fuels,” he said.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com

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