By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A coalition of retired U.S. military officers defended the Pentagon's plans to boost the use of more expensive biofuels, telling senators and their staff on Thursday that reduced dependence on oil from the Middle East would ultimately reduce costs and improve national security.
The U.S. veterans were fighting efforts by some Republicans to stop the purchase of expensive biofuels and spending on biofuel refineries at a time when defense budgets face massive cuts.
"A small investment in biofuels could reap trillions of dollars for the country at large," said Dan Nolan, a retired Army colonel, at a Capitol Hill briefing on Thursday organized by the Truman National Security Project, a left-leaning advocacy group on military, energy and foreign policy issues.
"What the Navy has invested in biofuels is such a small percentage of what the total investment in fuel is," Nolan said.
The Pentagon is the single largest buyer of oil in the world.
The briefing came after Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the Pentagon's chief naval officer, meet with about 100 Senate staff members on the military's biofuels projects.
Much of the congressional scrutiny has focused on the Navy's "Green Fleet" demonstration project, for which the Pentagon paid $12 million for 450,000 gallons of biofuel, nearly $27 a gallon.
The project, and others like it, are designed to make sure alternative fuels can be used without harming operations, but the military will not be buying it in large quantities until costs are competitive, the veterans said.
The Navy is preparing to test a carrier strike force, that has come to be known as the "Green Fleet," powered largely by alternative fuels. The test begins on July 18 during the six-week, 22-nation Rim of the Pacific exercises, the largest annual global naval maneuvers.
"You've got to pay up-front to get the benefit down range," said Stephen Cheney, a retired Brigadier General with the U.S. Marine Corps. "It's going to be amortized over the life of the program."
Part of the problem with the Navy's program is its name, said Cheney, who leads the American Security Project, a bipartisan advocacy group that met on Wednesday at the White House with other biofuels backers for a "pep talk" on fighting back against critics.
"What do you instinctively think when you hear 'Green Fleet?' Environmental, green, left, Greenpeace," Cheney said.
"I told them yesterday, I would call it 'America's Fleet.' Take the green out of it," he said.
Michael Breen, a retired Army captain who served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, put the blame on presidential election-year politics for the attack on the biofuel project.
"There's the desire by some to paint the Obama administration as this radical, socialist, environmentalist administration" that has infiltrated the Pentagon, said Breen, vice-president of the Truman Project.
(Editing by Jackie Frank)