By KEITH JOHNSON
WASHINGTON -- The US Senate voted late Wednesday to let the Navy keep buying alternative fuels, in a test of support for the military's embrace of green energy.
The 62-37 vote cheered companies that make fuels from unconventional sources, but the Pentagon's plans still could get trimmed as Congress hashes out the 2013 defense funding bill.
In its vote, the Senate rejected a measure introduced earlier this year by Sen. James Inhofe (R., Okla.) that would have banned the military from buying any fuel that costs more than traditional fuel.
That measure would have prevented the Pentagon from buying small batches of pricey biofuels such as the $26-per-gallon cocktail the Navy used for its "Great Green Fleet" during military exercises off Hawaii this summer. Those exercises used cooking oil and algae blends to power ships, jets and helicopters.
Military officials, especially those in the Navy and Marine Corps, have been looking more closely in recent years at to reduce the military's dependence on oil, which has grown more than 20-fold since World War II.
The use of alternative fuels can also save lives in war zones. Marine officials have pointed to very high casualty rates due to fuel convoys, and the Marines have has greatly expanded their use of solar power to reduce their need for diesel.
One plank of the Navy's plan, in conjunction with the departments of Energy and Agriculture, is to spend more than $500 million to jump-start construction of refineries that could produce large volumes of biofuels.
The political battle over the Pentagon's alternative-energy plans has been a major sticking point as Congress tries to pass the 2013 defense authorization bill. Leading Republicans in both chambers have been critical of the Pentagon's push at a time of shrinking defense budgets.
Some naval experts question whether a shift to biofuels will make the fleet more effective, while green proponents say the biofuels push could lead to the creation of thousands of jobs.
The vote cheered the biofuels sector. Firms such as Solazyme, which supplied the algae fuel for the summertime exercise, and Novozymes North America, which doesn't yet have any Pentagon contracts, believe Defense Department support for the industry will be crucial to achieving scale. Solazyme shares ended trading up more than 4% Wednesday.
Sen. Inhofe said the push to introduce biofuels to the Navy wouldn't help the service and could cost as much as $1.8 billion per year. The secretary of the Navy, he said, should "focus on readiness, not propping up the biofuels industry."
A slate of Democratic senators, led by Mark Udall of Colorado, defended the Navy's alternative-energy program, which has been in the works for almost a decade.
"This is not about an environmental agenda or some sort of green conspiracy," Mr. Udall said. The $12 million biofuel purchase that angered some GOP lawmakers and led to the proposed ban on new purchases amounts to about one-half of what the Pentagon spends on military bands, Mr. Udall said.
Despite the Senate vote Wednesday, the Pentagon's green-energy plans still face some obstacles. The House version of the defense funding bill includes a similar prohibition on biofuels purchases. The two bills must be reconciled in conference.
Also, the Senate bill still says the Pentagon can't build a biorefinery unless Congress specifically authorizes it, thanks to an amendment introduced by Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee in May.
Sen. Kay Hagan (D., N.C.) presented an amendment Wednesday that would strike the McCain section of the bill, but it hadn't received a vote as of Wednesday evening.
Dow Jones Newswires