The success of the US military in coming decades will depend largely on the development of a world-wide system for producing a variety of biofuels, according to a new report released today. That way, the military can stay refueled and able to operate anywhere, even when petroleum supplies are tight.

“Fueling the Future Force”, by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a think tank based in Washington, D.C., makes a set of recommendations for the Department of Defense about how it can move toward running without any petroleum in 30 years’ time.

However, it seems to have a poor grasp of where biofuels come from, the energy required to make them, and how to estimate the future availability of oil.

The report is very clear that this transition off of petroleum would be a huge challenge, and if it is to be successful, would require big steps starting now. “The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) must prepare now to transition smoothly to a future in which it does not depend on petroleum,” the report says. “DOD should ensure that it can operate all of its systems on non-petroleum fuels by 2040.”

The CNAS acknowledges that the cost of petroleum will rise, squeezed both by rising demand and because of shrinking supplies. It doesn’t utter the words “peak oil” anywhere, but it does say: “the geology and economics of producing petroleum will ensure that the market grows tight long before petroleum reserves are depleted.”

The report seems to vastly underestimate the scope of this challenge, however, for two big reasons. First, the only analysis of geological restrictions in supplies that the report mentions is a brief overview of various countries’ reserves-to-production ratios (R/P ratios). For the US, it points out, R/P is now about 11, so if it produced oil at today’s rates, the proved reserves would last only 11 years.

Does that mean the US is going to run out of domestic oil in 11 years? No, because the production from mature fields will fall with time. Because of this focus on R/P ratios, I think the authors have overestimated how much oil will be available in the medium-run, over the next 10 years or so. Instead of being able to somehow hold production constant, production will instead decline in those areas with low R/P and little prospect of adding new reserves.

As the site The Energy Standard puts it in a post titled “R/P ratio is completely useless”: “One of the favorite argumentative tools used by people who do not understand oil production limits is R/P ratio.” The use of it in the CNAS report makes me wonder about their understanding of oil supplies and depletion.

The other, much bigger oversight is that the report says little about where the biofuels will come from. What is the net energy, or energy return on investment (EROI), of biofuels? Are they much less dependent on petroleum than petroleum itself?

The report envisions a worldwide biofuel network that the DoD could draw on:
“new fuel sources must hold the potential to be available globally. DOD relies on international companies and other countries to provide fuel supplies for its use outside of the United States.”

Rather than relying on a single fuel,

if DOD can procure fuels from a portfolio of sources, such as fuels made from locally grown switchgrass, algae, camelina or other crops, that diversity can help to keep prices competitive (especially as a hedge against weather or economic conditions reducing crop output in any given region) and deny suppliers leverage over the United States.

The report mentions improvements in biofuel production:

Efforts by the National Laboratories, academia and the private sector are focusing on basic science that will enable more efficient use of second-generation biological fuel sources (made from non-food crops) by increasing efficiency in processing plant materials while retaining net energy gains, and by overcoming other technical hurdles.

However, what are these “net energy gains” now? They’re very small with today’s biofuels, and may not be any better with other biofuels. Cellulosic biofuel, such as from switchgrass, may be able to produce more gross energy, plot for plot, but it would take a lot of energy to turn the cellulose into a fuel. But what the military—and the rest of us—use is net energy (that is, the gross energy you get out of the whole process, minus the energy you put into the process).

If biofuels are going to replace petroleum, and maintain a high level of energy use, then the EROI on biofuels would need to improve dramatically. This seems unlikely. For more on this, see “Revisiting the Fake Fire Brigade Part 2: Biomass”.

One thing the report doesn’t seem to have considered is that if the US military ends up having a hard time refueling in future decades, so will many of their opponents—both states and insurgents. If military supremacy is not about an absolute level of strength, but instead about being stronger than your opponents, then the US military could adopt other approaches to maintaining its advantage against states such as China. But maybe in coming decades, the US would be a distinct disadvantage compared with OPEC countries, unless it finds alternative ways of fueling its military.

The report says that aiming for the military to simply use less energy overall is not a good way to go. Perhaps in a perfect world. But if we’re actually close to a peak in world oil, then it might be the only way to go. Maybe the military can get better at using mules and donkeys.

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