Do Biofuels Further National Security?

In what could be a brutal twist of irony, the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) claimed in a recent report that U.S. biofuel subsidies, partly aimed at augmenting national security, are helping to stoke instability in countries considered vital to American security. According to the institute’s modeling, the rise in prices in 2011—which spurred food riots in Egypt and elsewhere—can partly be blamed on corn ethanol subsidies causing a redistribution of American maize from exports to fuel production, causing the price of food to climb. Their quantitative observations “suggest that protests may reflect not only long-standing political failings of governments, but also the sudden desperate straits of vulnerable populations. If food prices remain high, there is likely to be persistent and increasing global social disruption.”

Though biofuel amounts to a small proportion of DoD energy outlays (about 7 percent), its financial feasibility will be determined by whether the market grows and costs come down. But that exact market growth could make the Middle East more unstable, precipitating national security risks and a rise in the price of oil biofuels were supposed to help protect against in the long run.

Likely Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel came out in support of biofuels last month in his questionnaire for the Senate Armed Services Committee. The former Senator’s cautious endorsement mirrored the Pentagon position. He wrote, “It is prudent for the Department to engage in tests and demonstrations to confirm defense equipment can operate on a range of fuels. However, as the Department allocates its limited resources to ensure it delivers necessary warfighting capability, it should only buy large volumes of these fuels when they are cost-competitive with petroleum products.” As for the definition of “large,” your guess is as good as ours.