By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Military veterans and former lawmakers urged Congress on Tuesday to continue funding the Pentagon's controversial biofuels program, saying the failure to deal with U.S. dependence on foreign oil was a key factor in the wars of the past 22 years.
"As long as U.S. and global economic security are dependent on oil produced in volatile regions of the world, our military will be required to continue deployments and dangerous missions to ensure the ... security of vital energy resources," the group, led by retired Republican Senator John Warner, said in a letter to President Barack Obama and members of Congress.
The letter, published in advertisements in major newspapers on Tuesday, came as the struggle over the military's biofuel program heats up in Congress, with some lawmakers trying to block military spending on alternative fuels that are more costly than conventional petroleum.
Lawmakers have expressed anger over the high price the military has paid for alternative energy. The Navy spent about $12 million for last week's test of the Great Green Fleet, an aircraft carrier strike force run primarily on alternative fuels.
For the two-day demonstration, the military paid about $26 per gallon for the biofuel, which was then mixed half-and-half with petroleum. The final price per gallon of the 50-50 blend was about $15. The Air Force last month paid $59 per gallon for a smaller amount of alcohol-to-jet fuel needed for testing.
But military officials note that a $10 hike in the cost of a barrel of oil will increase the Defense Department's annual bill for fuel by about $1.3 billion.
Senator Jim Inhofe, a skeptic of the military's spending on alternative fuels, sent a letter to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus on Tuesday asking for details about the total cost of the Green Fleet demonstration, including the price of shipping the biofuels from Texas and Louisiana to Hawaii.
"Requiring the Navy to spend exorbitant amounts of an already stretched budget on alternative fuels is impacting our near and long-term readiness," said Inhofe, who described himself as a proponent of an "all-of-the-above strategy on energy development."
"It is our duty to efficiently and wisely use the limited resources at our disposal to provide for the defense of this great nation," he said.
CALL FOR FURTHER TESTING
Warner, a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters the military needed $11 million in the 2013 fiscal year beginning in October to complete testing of alternative fuels to certify that they can be used safely as replacements for petroleum.
Warner, an adviser for the Pew Project on National Security, Energy and Security, said the Navy's message was to "let us finish our R&D (research and development), where we're having to pay higher price." After that, the Navy would not purchase biofuels for operations unless they were competitively priced.
Retired Marine Corps Major General Anthony Jackson, who signed the letter to Obama and Congress, said petroleum might be cheaper than biofuels but did not include the high price the American people had paid in blood and treasure as a result of the wars of the past two decades.
"We have been since 1990 ... involved in armed conflict in the Middle East," he added. "The cost in our lack of response to the chokehold both on our national defense and our national economy of oil has been a great deal more expensive than we like to say."
Phyllis Cuttino, director of the Pew Clean Energy Program, said the Pentagon's energy innovation programs shouldn't be politicized because they are about saving taxpayers dollars over the long run.
She said some legislation in Congress aimed at blocking the Pentagon's energy programs needed to be reworked because the language would actually outlaw fuels currently in use, particularly in unmanned vehicles.
(Reporting By David Alexander; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)