In a daylong, and at times biting, confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday, Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel refused to be pinned down on his positions on specific military energy programs.
The former Nebraska senator and decorated Vietnam War veteran had already endorsed the administration's approach to certifying its fleets on alternative fuels in written testimony made public Wednesday but said he would need to "examine the value" of more aggressive efforts, such as the Navy's $170 million stake in an interagency program to build commercial-scale biofuel refineries (E&E Daily, Jan. 31).
During yesterday's confirmation hearing, Hagel gave careful answers to questions from Sens. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) -- who sit on opposite sides of the debate over the military's role in alternative energy development -- that left both thinking they had heard what they wanted.
"I appreciate that very much," Inhofe said after lamenting the Navy's $12 million purchase of biofuels for a test this summer and securing a pledge from Hagel to confine defense dollars to security purposes.
Later, Hirono laid out her state's interests in programs aimed at developing cheaper, more stable sources of fuels such as the interagency biofuel refinery project. Hawaii is dependent on oil for much of its electricity.
"The Department of Defense is the largest user of, certainly, liquid fuels, but I think our energy budget -- I don't know the exact number, but it's probably around $18 billion a year," Hagel said. "Anything we can do to make any aspect of securing our country more cost-effective, we need to look at."
Inhofe, the committee's new ranking member, could not let the apparent inconsistency sit and returned to the issue during his final line of questioning, pressing Hagel for a clarification.
Hagel, whose responses to the barrage of questions from senators were often tentative, directed Inhofe back to his exact words.
"I didn't commit to any one program," he emphasized.
Hagel did, however, defend the idea of using the Pentagon's robust research program for energy purposes.
"Why wouldn't we be looking at all options if we have the kind of sophisticated research and technology that the Department of Defense does and has possession of -- why wouldn't we be enlarging that?" he said. "I don't know anything more specific to or central to our security than energy."
Many suspect Inhofe lost an opportunity to sway the Pentagon nominee on green energy programs by announcing his opposition to Hagel's nomination before the hearing.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who authored a failed provision in last year's defense policy bill to block the Navy's portion of the biofuel refineries program, has not announced his stance on Hagel and did not ask any energy questions yesterday.
Hagel needs a majority of the 26-member committee, which has 14 Democrats, to vote for his nomination for it to advance out of committee. He would likely have an easier time receiving approval on the Senate floor.
The nominee has met with nearly 60 senators in his bid for the job.