Did RAND force the “Green Fleet” out of the State of the Union Address?

by Craig Hooper on January 27, 2011

With all the excitement over the East Coast snowstorm, the President’s State of the Union and AFCEA’s WEST 2011, Navy-types may have missed an interesting bit of DC bureaucratic theater–RAND’s preemptive strike at the DOD’s aggressive adoption/promotion of renewable energy–in a report released early in the week.

I strongly suspect the perfectly-timed media coverage of the RAND report kicked the Navy out of the President’s State of the Union address, denying the President a chance to showcase the Navy’s vigorous efforts to link energy to national security.

As such, the RAND report poses the first real effort to retard SECNAV Ray Mabus’ surging influence in Washington.

In addition, the RAND report serves as an opening salvo in the Department of Energy’s campaign to hone in on the DoD’s well-funded portfolio of Green Initiatives.  DOE wants recover their “role” as the sole arbiter of the nation’s energy future.

This makes the RAND report more of a political statement than anything.

As reports go, RAND’s “Alternative Fuels For Military Applications” is a poorly argued, slightly researched, sloppily-done mess.  How RAND, an institution that has, for sixty years, “been synonymous with high-quality, objective research and analysis“, let this report out the door is perplexing.

How sloppy is this report?  Well, after attacking algae-sourced fuel, the authors couldn’t even be bothered to spell the name of the lead company in the algae-sourced fuel field–Solazyme–correctly.  The authors, Lawrence Van Bibber and James T. Bartis spelled the company “Solarzyme”.  Petty?  Yeah, sure, it’s a spellcheck/copywriter error (we all make them), but that, coming on top of  basic research errors like, oh, saying the Navy has a Fisher-Tropsch testing program when they don’t, or neglecting to even chat with the Navy’s Green-hued, conservation-hungry Secretariat…this has the feel of a report that was rushed into publication.  I concur with Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Energy), Tom Hicks’ assessment yesterday (.pdf):

And at the end of the day, we don’t really feel this is up to RAND’s standards for this type of work.

The peer reviewers–such as they were–should be ashamed of themselves.

Has this flawed RAND report had an impact?  Heck yeah–a political one.

At a minimum, the flawed RAND report pulled any mention of the Navy’s Green Tech efforts out of the markedly green-hued State of the Union address, and kicked at the stellar reputation of Secretary Mabus (who, the day before, was posting Green Fleet goals on the Whitehouse.gov website–an even more obvious signal of who will step in should SECDEF Gates stand down.).

The report put the Navy’s rather low-profile work right onto the radar-screen of those interesting folk who, as a matter of principle, will never support environmentally friendly initiatives.

It was to be expected.  The lead author, James T. Bartis, has something of a habit of popping up to convert his precious RAND-given credibility into political capital.  And he makes some real whoppers.  Take this James T. Bartis  Op-Ed, written to support the 2003 invasion of Iraq:

If Iraq is defeated in a war with the United States and allied nations, Iraq will need funds to rebuild. Oil exports are the obvious answer. Within 5 to 10 years, a combination of high pay-off investment and sound management could enable Iraq’s oil fields to produce more than 10 million barrels of oil per day — more than four times the current level.

Pumping millions of additional barrels of oil into the world market everyday would cause world oil prices to plummet….

….Under a free market, oil prices would probably fall to between $8 and $12 per barrel over the next 10 years — down dramatically from today’s price of about $25 per barrel…A major decrease in petroleum prices would boost U.S. and global economic activity. Home heating oil prices would drop by at least a third. Gasoline prices would drop to less than $1 a gallon. As a result, people and business in the United States and throughout the world would spend far less for fuel. From an economic perspective, the United States and many nations around the world would clearly win.

That misfire in judgment alone (As of today gas is pushing $3 dollars a gallon and we’re paying about $90 dollars a barrel for oil) should have been enough for RAND to insure James T. Bartis receive, for the foreseeable future, adult supervision–or at least regular water-cooler lectures on how poor research products directly injure RAND’s reputation.

All it takes is a quick glance at the references to see how thin Bartis’ report actually is.  To survey the market, the RAND researchers talked to people from CHOREN Industries GmbH (an ethanol maker), Flambeau River Biofuels (a company set to use  paper-mill pulp to make energy), My

Dream Fuel, LLC (no website, but they’re into Jatropha), Abundant Biofuels Corporation (Jatropha), Rentech Inc. (coal gassification), Great Plains Oil and Exploration (camelina), and Sustainable Oils (camelina–with a Navy fuel-delivery contract).

That’s it.

Yeah, they raided a few websites (“Solarzyme’s” among them), but, as far as industry outreach, that is it.  Amazing. Has either author actually attended a conference on this stuff?  How many DOD/DON recipients of alternative fuel exploratory research contracts did they overlook?

Though the authors say they chatted with three naval commands, according to the references, it appears they talked to the Navy once.  ONCE.  They cite…a conversation with Richard Kamin, Director, Navy Fuels Team from 2009–a mere four months after Ray Mabus was sworn in as SECNAV!  Wow.

Amazing.

Look.  The premise of the report is interesting, and it hints at a bit of coming DC friction–DOE’s frustration at being sidelined by pesky, change-oriented DOD people.  In my mind, the sclerotic DOE dropped the ball long ago, and now that they are facing crippling budget-cuts–and that they’ve seen how invigorated management/leadership can shake up the field, the DOE is fighting for a piece of the new funding that’ll probably go to the Navy and DOD.

For the DOE, fighting for the alternative energy lead is a zero sum game–if it comes out of DOD’s hide, all the better!

The RAND report is interesting.  I’m no fan of ethanol-based fuel either.  But, as far as DOD, the report only hints at how much benefit the Navy might be able to extract via basic energy conservation measures–but it fails to report just how much the Navy is already doing (or compare the amount of the Navy’s investment in renewable fuel vs. conservation measures). It could have done better there.

Overall, the RAND researchers were far too interested in short-term applications versus long-term potential. (I wonder where Bartis was back in 2005-6, when the Air Force was “inappropriately” supporting development of an alternative fuel with little military application?  Where was Bartis when the then-Green-minded Air Force was happily pouring money into Fischer-Tropsch infrastructure?)

Look.  The RAND report is a real shame because it retards–rather than informs–debate.  There is real room to take a few valid swipes at the Navy’s fuel strategy.

There are some real issues afoot.  How does the Navy value conservation?  Is the Navy adequately balancing operational requirements with conservation goals?  Why has the Navy so easily usurped the Department of Energy in this space?  Has the Navy played a historical role in leading tech development/product demand in the economy before?  What are the wider implications as the Navy–more than any other service–marches towards making directed, on-demand energy a, well, weapon?  All are great questions that deserve further, in-depth scrutiny.

I value the flurry of news coverage sparked by the RAND report.  Getting these issues in front of the mainstream media is important and valuable.  But a flawed report isn’t a good starting place for civic conversation.   Now, instead of pushing the debate on energy security farther ahead, from a strongly-argued and factually correct study, the Navy must march right back over well-trodden ground, toiling to sway the established (and now re-enforced) biases of an under-informed public.  Wouldn’t have been better to have today’s debate start from a well-researched, information-based position versus, well, this decidedly non-fact-based op-ed?

Rather than arguing facts, RAND stooped to sway mass opinion.  And that–using RAND’s influence and public reputation to create a groundswell of  “oh, green energy doesn’t work for the military–because RAND says so” is wrong.

That isn’t RAND’s role.

If RAND values it’s big government contract (W74V8H-06-C-0002), it really must return to it’s roots–rigorous, fact-based inquiry.

After all, that’s what we taxpayers paid ‘em to do.

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  • Andre From Sacto

    If the USN has a hard time going up against the entrenched energy interest imagine how hard it is for states, people, or sovereign third world nations. The fact that anybody who argued for the Iraq war is writing anything more than children’s books only shows their persistence. Thank you for calling him and his B.S. report out. The next time Bartis shows his face anywhere near a navy base or Washington DC he needs to be run out of town. I would argue for tar and feathering if, and only if, the tar can be grown with algae.

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