‘Green’ fuel for military jets

Snow shovels in Ottawa

There has recently been a fair bit of media coverage discussing an announcement from the United States Air Force that they are trying to use 50% synthetic fuel by 2016. The Lede, a blog associated with the New York Times, seems to misunderstand the issue completely. They are citing this as an example of the Air Force “trying to be true stewards of the environment.” There is no reason for which synthetic fuels are necessarily more environmentally friendly than petroleum; indeed, those made from coal are significantly worse.

The actual fuel being used – dubbed JP-8 – is made from natural gas. Air Force officials say they eventually intend to make it from coal, given that the United States has abundant reserves. This inititative is about symbolically reducing dependence on petroleum imports, not about protecting the environment. The German and Japanese governments did the same thing during the Second World War, when their access to oil was restricted. Furthermore, it is worth stressing that efforts by militaries to be greener are virtually always going to be window dressing. The operation of armed forces is inevitably hugely environmentally destructive: from munitions factories to test ranges to the wanton fuel inefficiency of aircraft afterburners, the whole military complex is about as anti-green as you can get.

People should be unwilling to accept superficial claims that installing some solar panels and building hybrid tanks is going to change that.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

22 thoughts on “‘Green’ fuel for military jets”

  1. If we ever get a world carbon price, I am willing to bet armies will be exempted.

    After all, who else can protect our way of life / the glory of the king / the innocence of our children? And how can they protect it while they need to worry about not destroying the planet?

    The American Way of Life is not negotiable!

  2. U.S. military hops on green bandwagon
    Awareness, rising costs sway branches to seek alternative fuel sources

    By Dave Montgomery
    McClatchy Newspapers
    Monday, December 3, 2007

    “Giant wind turbines rise from the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Army leaders are embracing hybrid vehicles, fuel cells and other emerging technologies, to help troops on the battlefield and to curb fuel consumption…

    The Defense Department is the largest energy consumer in the United States, with a $13.6 billion energy bill last year. The military services and other components of the defense establishment consume the equivalent of 340,000 barrels of oil a day, or 1.5 percent of total U.S. energy consumption.”

  3. tetrachloroethylene—better known as perchloroethylene or “perc” for short

    “According to the air-quality authorities in southern California, people living near a typical dry-cleaners face a higher risk of cancer than those near oil-refineries or power stations. Women who work in dry-cleaning shops are 2-4 times more likely to have miscarriages than those who don’t.
    With a timorous EPA having shied away from reform, California has opted to go it alone. From January 1st onwards, dry cleaners throughout the state will be banned from replacing any of their perc washing and drying machines. And all existing ones will have to be phased out over the next 15 years.”

  4. On the issue of ‘green’ technology in general, there is a bit of a silver lining to this. If the army – which is fundamentally unconcerned with protecting the environment – finds it sensible to use solar and wind power, it shows that they are viable on their own merits. It might also help drive improvements in those technologies that eventually reach the commercial market.

  5. It might also help drive improvements in those technologies that eventually reach the commercial market.

    True, though such secondary effects are not at the forefront of military thinking.

  6. Air Force officials announced a plan last night to develop a privately financed coal-to-liquids plant at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana within the next four years.

    The project, which could cost between $1 billion and $4 billion, would convert coal into synthetic liquids like jet fuel.

    The proposal has the backing of the coal industry, but opponents from environmental groups said at a community forum last night that the plant and others like it could increase greenhouse gas emissions.

    Air Force Assistant Secretary William Anderson said whoever builds the plant would be required to design it to capture carbon dioxide for industrial use

  7. Investors nervous, but Air Force sees coal as fuel of the future (03/24/2008)

    The Air Force is offering incentives to investors to build a power plant that converts domestic coal into cleaner-burning synthetic fuel at its base in central Montana. The plant would be the first in what the Air Force hopes will be a nationwide network of such facilities.

    Air Force officials said the plants could help neutralize a national security threat by tapping into the country’s abundant coal reserves. And by offering itself as a partner in the Montana plant, the Air Force hopes to prod Wall Street investors — nervous over coal’s role in climate change — to sink money into similar plants nationwide.

    The Air Force would not finance, construct or operate the coal plant. Instead, it has offered private developers a 700-acre site on the base and a promise that it would be a ready customer as the government’s largest fuel consumer.

    “We’re going to be burning fossil fuels for a long time, and there’s three times as much coal in the ground as there are oil reserves,” said Air Force Assistant Secretary William Anderson. “Guess what? We’re going to burn coal.”

    The astronomical cost of coal-to-liquids plants is a potential drawback, according to analysts. Their high price tag, up to $5 billion per plant, would be hard to justify if oil prices were to drop. In addition, coal has drawn wide opposition on Capitol Hill, where some leading lawmakers reject claims it can be transformed into a clean fuel. Without emissions controls, experts say coal-to-liquids plants could churn out twice as much greenhouse gas as oil

  8. What is it good for?

    By Gar Lipow

    The U.S. military push for coal based synthetic fuels reminds us that in the long run, solving climate chaos is incompatible with an aggressive military policy. Solutions will ultimately have to draw on traditional American virtues of thrift and cleverness, not the domination and power expressed in the new U.S. Air Force motto: Air Force Above All, which probably sounded more impressive in the original German.

  9. Honeywell & Airbus To Turn Algae Into Jet Fuel

    mystermarque alerts us to an announcement by Honeywell, JetBlue Airways, International Aero Engines, and Airbus about a program to develop jet fuel from algae and other biomass. They hope to supply nearly 1/3 of the demand for jet fuel from these sources by 2030. A Wall Street Journal blog points out that even if this program’s goals are met, we will be worse off by 2030 in terms of jet kerosene released into the atmosphere, assuming that the rapid growth in the aviation sector continues apace.

  10. Plea to Obama: Kill the Air Force liquid coal plant

    Obama gave a powerful call to action on energy and climate, and he has given the order to halt Bush’s final rules. But if he really wants to send a quick, strong signal that he intends to preserve a livable climate, he should intervene immediately to stop the Pentagon’s toxic dalliance with liquid coal.

  11. Prayers — answered!
    Air Force drops plans to build liquid coal plant
    Posted by Joseph Romm (Guest Contributor) at 12:04 AM on 03 Feb 2009

    “Section 526 of the 2007 energy bill bars federal agencies from buying alternative or synthetic fuels if they have higher lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than conventional petroleum fuels.”

  12. Armies around the world go green to save fuel – and lives
    And the military’s new interest in eco-solutions could bring benefits to us all
    By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor

    The US military – the country’s largest single energy consumer – has embarked on a drive to save fuel, and thus lives. Half of its wartime casualties are sustained by convoys, which are mostly carrying fuel and are a favoured target for enemies. It estimates that every 1 per cent of fuel saved means 6,444 soldiers do not have to travel in a vulnerable convoy.

    One simple innovation – insulating tents in Iraq and Afghanistan with a layer of hard foam, reducing the need to heat and cool them – has saved 100,000 gallons of fuel a day. The Pentagon aims to get a quarter of its energy from renewable sources by 2025. It is to buy 4,000 electric cars (the world’s largest single order) for use on its bases, and is developing hybrid armoured vehicles for the battlefield.

    It has saved fuel by cutting the weight of aircraft – removing floor mats, redundant tools, loading thick manuals on to laptops, and using lighter paint – and within seven years plans to fly them on a 50/50 blend of ordinary fuel and biofuel, probably made from algae.

  13. US Navy Tries To Turn Seawater Into Jet Fuel

    “The New Scientists reports that faced with global warming and potential oil shortages, the US Navy is experimenting with making jet fuel from seawater by processing seawater into unsaturated short-chain hydrocarbons that with further refining could be made into kerosene-based jet fuel. The process involves extracting carbon dioxide dissolved in the water and combining it with hydrogen — obtained by splitting water molecules using electricity — to make a hydrocarbon fuel, a variant of a chemical reaction called the Fischer-Tropsch process, which is used commercially to produce a gasoline-like hydrocarbon fuel from syngas, a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen often derived from coal. The navy team have been experimenting to find out how to steer the CO2-producing process away from producing unwanted methane by finding a different catalyst than the usual cobalt-based catalyst. ‘The idea of using CO2 as a carbon source is appealing,’ says Philip Jessop, a chemist at Queen’s University adding that to make a jet fuel that is properly ‘green’, the energy-intensive electrolysis that produces the hydrogen will need to use a carbon-neutral energy source; and the complex multi-step process will always consume significantly more energy than the fuel it produces could yield. ‘It’s a lot more complicated than it at first looks.'”

  14. “The operation of armed forces is inevitably hugely environmentally destructive”

    I think it isn’t unreasonable to say that the operation of armed forces has a negligible effect on the environment, compared to the deployment of the armed forces. And crucially, the armed forces don’t deploy themselves. In other words, it’s not like the decision to mandate increased fuel economy standards comes from a different place than the decision to invade sovereign countries. Decisions made by “the army” are largely exactly what you say – “window dressing”.

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