The U.S. military, the nation’s largest user of fossil fuels, could be the catalyst for reducing the country’s dependence on imported oil by moving to alternate energy forms  — in the process providing the demand that the fledgling industry needs to become financially viable, says Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus.

The federal government uses 2 percent of all fossil fuels consumed by America, and the Department of Defense uses 90 percent of that, he said at the Mississippi State University Biofuels Conference, which attracted industry, government, and research leaders from around the nation.

As secretary, Mabus has overall responsibility for the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps, encompassing some 900,000 personnel and an annual budget of more than $150 billion.

In keeping with President Obama’s stated goal of weaning the military from its dependence on fossil fuels, Mabus says he has made a commitment that “by the year 2020 at the latest, at least 50 percent of all Navy energy, afloat and ashore, will come from alternative, non-fossil fuel sources. We’re doing this for one reason: to be better war fighters, to be a better military organization.”

Longer term, it is also expected that alternative energy will save money for the military.

Mabus, who was Mississippi governor from 1988-1992 and later served as U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, noted that “every time the price of oil goes up $1, it costs the Navy $31 million in additional fuel costs.”

When the conflict started in Libya earlier this year, he says, “the price of oil immediately shot up $30 per barrel. That was a $1 billion hit we took.

“When you’re a military organization, among the things you look at are the vulnerabilities of your potential adversaries. But, you’d better also look at your own vulnerabilities, because you know your adversaries are.

“When we did an examination of the vulnerabilities of the Navy and Marine Corps, fuel rose to the top of the list pretty fast. We simply buy too much fossil fuel from actual and potentially volatile places.

‘We would never allow some of these countries we buy fuel from to build our ships, our aircraft, our ground vehicles — but because we depend on them for fuel, we give them a say in whether our ships sail, our aircraft fly, our ground vehicles operate.”

When spikes in energy prices occur, Mabus says, “The only place we can go to get that money is from our operating accounts. That means fewer flying hours, fewer steaming days, less training, fewer operations. We simply have to find a way to insulate ourselves from these supply and price shocks.”