- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Growing up in Philadelphia, I remember learning about the first oil well in the United States, drilled in Titusville, Pa., more than 150 years ago. Not long after, oil fields in the Keystone State were yielding more than 10 million barrels a year.

Since that first well, our national demand for fuel has grown astronomically. We have seen this in the Defense Department as well. Since the Vietnam War, there has been a 175 percent increase in the number of gallons of fuel consumed per day for each deployed service member. Each year, the Department of Defense purchases more than 5 billion gallons of fuel, and the Air Force is responsible for more than half of that purchase.

Because of this, the Air Force is compelled to address energy questions in much the same way a city, a company or a family would - by being good stewards of the environment and cost-conscious. Energy availability and security support all of our missions, operations and organizations around the globe, including Afghanistan, Libya and Japan. To that end, we are seeking viable alternative fuels for greater flexibility.

Biofuels are not a new concept. The Ford Model T, produced from 1903 to 1926, was designed to run on ethanol. However, with crude oil being extracted cheaply from the ground, demand for the less-costly petroleum-based fuels left biological fuel by the wayside. But the technology, ingenuity and knowhow have remained with us. In these days of constricted budgets, the fuel we buy needs to be cost competitive.

At the Philadelphia Phillies’ home opener April 1, the Air Force saluted the men and women of the armed forces with a four-plane flyover of F-15 fighters. What made this ceremony different was that three of the F-15s were equipped to fly on a traditional jet fuel mixed with biofuel derived from animal fats and plant oils. This fuel is made in America and is an environmentally friendly source that could help the Air Force reduce demand for foreign oil.

President Obama outlined a plan to cut oil imports and rely more on U.S.-derived energy, including biofuels, in the next decade. The Air Force has been working diligently in this regard for nearly five years, certifying a large number of our aircraft with test flights using a variety of alternative fuels.

The certification to use this biofuel and petroleum-based blend earlier this month represents ongoing efforts by the Air Force, as well as the Navy, to certify and test biofuels and other alternatives. Over the next few years, we are looking to integrate environmentally friendly, cost-competitive alternative blends into our operations. Our plan is to use them as “drop-in” replacements with the same characteristics and performance as traditional jet fuel. At the same time, we are sensitive to having resources or land unnecessarily diverted from producing food. Hence, our focus is on using biofuel stocks that do not directly impact the food supply.

As early as this summer, the seed work done by the military’s testing of biofuels could pay off in a big way. There’s a good chance that commercial aviation will get approval to begin using biofuel blends, a move that could help reduce the price of alternative fuels from what have been cost-prohibitive levels.

Today, America is dependent on foreign oil. The political unrest in the Mideast and a series of natural disasters around the world affect the price of oil daily. The cost of fuel for our cars and trucks has increased to more than $4 a gallon in many places. Without alternative paths, our energy dependence will continue to undermine our security and prosperity. Domestic sources of fuel, both conventional and alternative, can contribute to the solution.

So far, we have approved 99 percent of our aircraft fleet, ground equipment and vehicles to fly and operate on a blend of synthetic and traditional jet fuels. We also continue to test other fuel types made from renewable sources and different processes. However, we recognize that we can’t do this alone, and we are looking to continue working closely with the private sector to develop the fuels we need to keep our planes in the sky protecting our nation. We think it’s a battle worth fighting.

Kevin Geiss is deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for energy.

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