The price of energy is dirt cheap right now: U.S. natural gas prices are at their lowest levels since 2012, and oil prices worldwide are near six-year lows. Leave it to the Pentagon to make the cost of delivering cheap energy ridiculously expensive.
A compressed natural gas automobile filling station in Afghanistan that should have cost about $500,000 ended up costing $43 million, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). The watchdog agency said Monday it discovered the cost overrun during a review of the Defense Department’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO).
Not only did the Pentagon claim ignorance about the gas station, said SIGAR chief John Sopko, U.S. military officials also said they knew nothing about the entire task force. TFBSO is an $800 million program that was shut down just over six months ago, he wrote in a letter to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter that was included with the agency’s findings.
“Frankly, I find it both shocking and incredible that DOD asserts that it no longer has any knowledge about TFBSO,” Sopko said. He added that he would continue his inquiry to determine if “any conduct by TFBSO staff or contractors was criminal in nature” — partly because there was no need for the station in the first place, but also due to the fact that there appeared to be no feasibility study done on the project before it began.
On top of the cost overrun, the gas station is a bust. Most cars in Afghanistan run on petrol or diesel — not natural gas. (Some neighboring countries are pioneers in compressed-gas powered cars, notably Iran and Pakistan, but not Afghanistan.) SIGAR noted that the cost of converting a car to use natural gas is $700 per car in Afghanistan. In 2014, the average Afghan citizen’s annual salary was $670, according to the World Bank.
USAID has been pushing Afghans to use alternative fuel sources. Earlier this year, the aid agency heralded the opening of two liquefied petroleum gas stations in Kabul. However, some Afghans have been reluctant to convert older vehicles that run on gasoline.
In an Oct. 9 letter to SIGAR, which was included in the report, Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Brian P. McKeon said the Pentagon was unable to retain TFBSO staff because of a lack of funding. He also said that the Pentagon offered to help SIGAR locate former staff members, but the watchdog did not take the offer. He added that the Pentagon is ready to provide access to electronic records on TFBSO activity.
Photo credit: Massoud Hossaini/Getty Images
Correction, Nov. 2, 2015: Brian P. McKeon is the principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy. A previous version of this article said that he was the under secretary of defense for policy.