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What is more important for America: Having a military that is well-trained for combat, or having the fuel that powers our ships, planes, and tanks?

This is a decision that the Department of Defense is grappling with now. According to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, every time the price of a barrel of imported oil rises one dollar, it costs the Navy $31 million in increased fuel costs. As the U.S. military attempts to reel back its spending, the forecasted rise in oil prices may force the DoD — the world’s largest consumer of energy — to spend more for fuel while cutting total spending on military operations and training exercises for our soldiers.

Seeking to avoid a “fuel or fight” scenario, the Navy signed a $12 million contract in 2011 to buy 450,000 gallons of fuel made from alternative fuels to cut costs for the Department of Defense and reduce U.S. reliance on foreign oil. While these are worthy goals, it will take more than a fuel contract to truly safeguard America from the hazardous consequences of our reliance on foreign oil.

If we want to maintain a strong military while also reducing our dependence on foreign oil, we need to make alternative fuels commercially viable so that civilians and soldiers alike can choose fuels other than gasoline derived from oil. Investing in the infrastructure that will produce and distribute alternative fuels at scale, and providing long term certainty in the alternative fuels market will ultimately strip oil of its strategic status by forcing it to compete with cleaner, domestically produced fuels.

Today, less than 4% of cars on the road can run on fuels other than gasoline derived from oil. This gives oil a near monopoly over the transportation fuels market. In Brazil, more than 90% of their cars are Flex Fuel vehicles, meaning they can operate on any combination of gasoline, methanol or ethanol. This technology costs less than an extra $100 per new vehicle and enables consumers to put fuels other than gasoline into their tanks. Increasing the number of Flex Fuel vehicles on the road and investing in the infrastructure to dispense alternative fuels will help break oil’s hold on the fuels market by providing consumers access to competitive alternative fuels.

It is also critical to keep in mind that the oil industry receives six times more in federal incentives than renewable energy. Permanent subsidies for oil and gas over the last 90 years have kept gas prices relatively low compared to newer, less developed alternative fuels which receive temporary financial or government support. Renewable energy currently suffers from the inability to predict whether incentives will be extended every year or two. Alternatives, like ethanol, can deliver right now on its promise to provide energy to Americans affordably, but only if there is a level playing field to compete with the permanent entitlements which oil continues to enjoy at the taxpayers’ expense.

The military is making considerable strides in renewable energy use. The Navy wants to derive 50 percent of its total energy from alternative sources by 2020 and the Air Force hopes to get half of the fuel it uses for domestic flights from alternative sources by 2016. Setting similar goals for other departments and agencies will help accelerate our nation’s progress toward energy independence. If every federal vehicle or air craft operated on domestically produced alternative fuels, we could displace more foreign oil and keep more money in our economy.  

To be sure, it may take some time for America to eliminate the use of foreign oil as a fuel. However, a strong commitment to developing and delivering alternatives will help keep our engines running and our military well trained.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons