US military must stop using oil in 30 years, defense think tank says

28 Sep 2010

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, the report 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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  1. jimmy had this to say, on 1 October 2010 | Permalink

    What about hemp?

    rebuilds soil
    grows in 100 days
    no fertiliser
    no herbicide
    grows in poor soil
    little water needed
    produces stalk for fuel/ethanol, seed for food, livestock, fibre for textiles, leaves for roughage/ethanol.

    Cheap to implement, cheap to convert to fuel.
    Security of supply, security of economy, improved health of the nation.

  2. Mason Inman had this to say, on 1 October 2010 | Permalink

    That would be great to have a hemp-fueled military!

    I think biodiesel from the oil in the seeds might be a better way to go than making ethanol, though.

    Seems unlikely the military would endorse hemp biofuels. But as the CNAS paper says, the military has to be able to refuel using whatever local fuels they can get. If people start producing a lot of hemp biofuels, maybe the military would end up buying them, whether they wanted to or not.

  3. charles had this to say, on 5 October 2010 | Permalink

    I’m a bit confused. I’ve read and so been told that algae and hemp might be good substitutes for petrol. But doesn’t a huge vital aspect of petroleum’s energy density emerge from it being pressurized and heated for millions of years? So is it possible for hemp and algae which grows for a few days, weeks or months to create oil which is as energy dense as several hundred year old crude petrol?

  4. Mason Inman had this to say, on 5 October 2010 | Permalink

    Naturally, it does take a lot of pressure and time (and also high temperatures) to make petroleum, but it doesn’t have to. In the lab, you can repeat the process much faster. Or you can grow things such as algae that produce oils, which are close to the chemicals in diesel fuel, for example.

    Regardless of how you make the chemicals, they have the same amount of energy. So if you have a typical diesel fuel molecule, with 12 carbons and 23 hydrogens, it will give off the same amount of energy when you burn it, regardless of whether it came from an oil well, from a lab, or from algae growing in a pond.

    The difference between all these, though, is effort that it takes us to get the raw materials and turn them into the fuel we want. In the case of petroleum underground, we didn’t put in any effort to make it; nature made it for us. But it does take some energy to pump it to the surface, to pipe it to a refinery, to refine it into gasoline or diesel, and so on.

    In the case of algae, we have to build the ponds or tubes or whatever to grow the algae in, we have to feed it nutrients, and so on. Then we also have to refine it to turn it into useable fuel. So it requires a lot of energy to do that.

    Where will that energy come from? Today, when people build an algae-growing system, they’re doing it primarily using fossil fuels. It takes energy to make energy, and since fossil fuels are cheaper than algae biofuels—for now—then the cheapest way to make algae biofuels is to use fossil fuels in the process.

    It seems to me that the CNAS report on the military doesn’t understand how much energy input is required to make biofuels from algae or other sources. By some measures, the energy you get out from today’s algae biodiesel is barely more than the energy you put in. With ethanol from corn, it’s the same—or it might even be an energy loser, requiring more energy input than energy output.

    The image below, taken from a 2009 American Scientist article, “Revisiting the Limits to Growth” (link to 480 KB pdf), gives estimates of the energy return on investment (EROI) of various kinds of fuels and energy sources:

    If the military wants to be completely independent from petroleum, then they would have to use biofuels that don’t depend on petroleum inputs to make them. And that would be difficult to achieve at the quantities that the military consumes.

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books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »