U.S. Air Force and Coal

From Global Energy Monitor

Shortly after becoming Air Force secretary in 2005, Michael Wynn began promoting a strategy for the air force to spur the development of synthetic aviation fuel. Previously, Wynne had worked as an executive with Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, then as top weapons buyer for the Department of Defense.[1]

The Air Force program gained momentum following the rise in oil prices caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2006.[1]

The Air Force offered private developers access to a 700-acre site at Malmstrom Air Force Base and promised to purchase the output of the plant.[2] Air Force Assistant Secretary William Anderson told the Associated Press that the Air Force planned to fuel half of its North American fleet with a synthetic fuel blend by 2016. Doing so would require 400 million gallons of coal-based fuel annually, requiring 7 plants the size of the 25,000 barrel-per-day proposed Malmstrom Air Force Base Coal-to-Liquids project. [3] Bids for the Malmstrom facility were requested by May, 2008.[4]

In August 2008, the synthetic fuels project lost its biggest proponent with the resignation of the Air Force's top energy official, William Anderson. Acting Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley indicated that he has concerns about the ability of the CTL market to meet the service's fuel needs at a competitive price, leaving the future of the program uncertain. Despite these apparent setbacks, a spokesperson for the CTL industry reiterated confidence in the military's backing of coal-based fuels.[5]

Jan. 2009: Air Force cancels Malmstrom Project

On January 20, 2009, the Air Force Times reported that the Air Force had reached a decision on the Malmstrom plant and would announce it on January 16. [6]

On January 29, 2009, Air Force officials announced that they had rejected construction proposals and would no longer be pursuing development of the large synthetic fuel plant.[7]

Oct. 2009: Air Force abandons plans to develop CTL plants

On October 21, 2009, the Air Force announced it had cancelled plans to build coal-to-liquids fuel plants as a means of producing alternative jet fuels. Under the Bush administration, the Air Force - which makes up 10 percent of U.S. jet fuel demand - had been pushing to drive the development of a domestic CTL market. The decision to abandon these plans represents a policy shift under the Obama administration and raises doubts about the viability of developing a CTL industry in the U.S.[8]

Air Force Fuel Usage

The U.S. Air Force uses more than half of the fuel consumed by the U.S. government.[9]

For every $10 increase in the price of a barrel of oil, the amount the Air Force spends on fuel increases by $600 million.[10]

In 2007, the Air Force spent $5.8 billion to buy 2.6 billion gallons of fuel. In 2003, the service spent about half that — $2.9 billion — to buy slightly more fuel, nearly 3 billion gallons.The U.S. Air Force plans to certify its fleet of nearly 6,000 aircraft to use a 50-50 blend of synthetic fuel and traditional petroleum-based jet fuel by 2011.[11]

Lobbying Activities

In December 2007, disclosure forms revealed that Rentech, a developer of coal-to-liquids technology, had hired the lobbying firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Shreck to lobby the federal government.[12] That month, Rentech also announced that it had appointed former U.S. Air Force Under Secretary Ron Sega to its board of directors. Sega headed the Air Force's energy strategy and flew on the first Air Force jet powered by synthetic fuels in September 2006.[13]

Greenhouse Gas Limits in 2007 Energy Act

On January 30, 2008, Representative Henry Waxman, Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Tom Davis, Ranking Minority Member of the committee, wrote to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, requesting information on how the Department of Defense's plans for coal-based synfuels would comply with new greenhouse gas limits imposed on federal agencies by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.[14]

According to Section 526 of the law:

No Federal agency shall enter into a contract for procurement of an alternative or synthetic fuel, including a fuel produced from nonconventional petroleum sources, for any mobility-related use, other than for research or testing, unless the contract specifies that the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production and combustion of the fuel supplied under the contract must, on an ongoing basis, be less than or equal to such emissions from the equivalent conventional fuel produced from conventional petroleum sources.

Groups working on Air Force synfuel proposals

Montana Environmental Information Center

Synthetic Fuels Lobbying Groups

Coal-to-Liquids Coalition



  1. 1.0 1.1 Jen Dimascio and Erika Lovley, "Coal lobby benefited from Air Force ally," Politico, 9/18/08
  2. "Air Force wants coal for fuel, but will idea fly?" Associated Press, March 31, 2008
  3. "Air Force wants coal for fuel, but will idea fly?" Associated Press, March 31, 2008
  4. "Air Force wants coal for fuel, but will idea fly?" Associated Press, March 31, 2008
  5. "Coal-to-liquified: Air Force may abandon coal-to-liquids fuels program", Joseph Romm, Grist, August 13, 2008.
  6. "Decision due on Mont. synthetic fuel plant", Air Force Times, January 20, 2009.
  7. Peter Johnson, "Officials scrap plans for plant at Malmstrom," Great Falls Tribune, January 30, 2009.
  8. "Air Force abandons efforts to spur CTL development," E&ENews PM, October 21, 2009. (Subscription required.)
  9. "Air Force pushing for liquefied coal to power its fleet," Dave Montgomery, Lawrence Journal-World, 3/30/08
  10. "Air Force pushing for liquefied coal to power its fleet," Dave Montgomery, Lawrence Journal-World, 3/30/08
  11. "Air Force pushing for liquefied coal to power its fleet," Dave Montgomery, Lawrence Journal-World, 3/30/08
  12. "Rentech Hires Lobbying Firm," Associated Press, January 2, 2008.
  13. "Rentech Announces Appointment of Former U.S. Air Force Under Secretary Ron Sega to Its Board of Directors," Business Wire, December 18, 2007.
  14. Letter from Henry Waxman and Tom Davis to Robert Gates, January 30, 2008 (PDF file)

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