Politics — not policy or technology — is proving to be the biggest obstacle to developing alternative fuel programs for the Pentagon that could prove to be successful commercial energy alternatives, says Phyllis Cuttino, director of the Pew Project on National Security, Energy, and Climate.

The Pentagon is employing and deploying ships and aircraft using sound technology for alternative energy, particularly biofuels, Cuttino says. The big problem in going forward with the programs, she says, appears to be static from federal lawmakers responding to constituents and special interests associated with the traditional fossil fuel industries. “There are a lot of deeply entrenched interests,” she says.

Some lawmakers have argued that the Pentagon, and specifically the U.S. Navy, have no business getting into the energy business, alternative or otherwise. But Navy and Pentagon officials says federal law allows them to do just that, especially when national security is at stake. The U.S. military brass argues that continued dependence on foreign oil reaches that level of concern.

“As we bring newer ships in and bring forward requirements, it’s clearly to me a factor in security,” says Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations (CNO).

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus says the service can ill afford to bypass the opportunity to develop alternative fuels. “First, our dependence on foreign sources of fossil fuel is rife with danger for our nation and it would be irresponsible to continue it,” he says. “Second, paying for spikes in oil prices means we may have less money to spend on readiness, which includes procurement. We could be using that money for more hardware and more platforms.”

Cuttino agrees with the military assessment, citing the Navy’s development of nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers as an example of times when the U.S. military has developed alternative fuel programs.

More recently, she notes, the Navy has scored success using significant amounts of biofuel during Pacific-based exercises. The Navy is looking to deploy what it calls the “Green Fleet” of ships and “Green Hornet” F/A-18 aircraft using increasingly greater amounts of biofuel to power the vessels and jets.

“The Navy has been the pioneer,” Cuttino says.

The service will likely continue its efforts, she says, despite the opposition in Washington.

“What we’ve been seeing is opposition from the oil-producing states,” Cuttino says. “The debate has been troubling.”

Not only will biofuel development pay off in the long-term — military applications could lead to commercially competitive energy by 2018 — but the new fuel options could help cushion the military against market volatility and spikes in fossil fuel prices, Cuttino says. In the middle part of the last decade, for example, the Pentagon’s fuel bill just about doubled, she points out.

While biofuels are expensive now, she says, they will become cheaper as development continues and commercial interest grows. Commercial airlines are already showing a big interest, she notes.