The $43M Natural Gas Station to Nowhere
In his one-man stand against Friday's budget deal, Sen. Rand Paul highlights a real head-scratcher of a U.S. boondoggle
In his one-man filibuster of a two-year spending deal that passed in the wee hours of the morning on Friday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) highlighted a laundry list of wasteful government programs.
Perhaps the most shocking was a $43 million compressed natural gas (CNG) station to help rebuild Afghanistan.
That figure came from a government watchdog, and the Pentagon later argued the report grossly overstated the price tag.
But even if the cost was “only” $5 million to $10 million, it raised questions about why the military conceived of building a natural gas station in a nation with virtually no natural gas vehicles or apparent need for a fueling station to support them.
“I thought the military’s job was to kill the enemy. So the military’s job now is to reduce their carbon footprint, so they bought a $45 million dollar gas station that serves up natural gas, and guess what they discovered?” Paul said. “They kept waiting. So the guy sitting next to the pump — you can imagine him sitting on a stool, and he’s waiting for customers — no one ever came.”
Paul said military planners belatedly realized that Afghanistan, like the senator’s hometown in Kentucky, has very few vehicles that run on natural gas.
"So they said, 'Well gosh, we already built this $45 million gas station. Maybe we should buy them some cars," he said. "So they bought them some cars with your money. They pay for the gas station with your money. Now they bought them some cars with your money."
The gas station was one of many anecdotes Paul recited on Thursday in his bid to hold up the vote on the budget deal — a vote that eventually came after midnight.
Other example offered by Paul include a government-funded study to determine whether astronaut Neil Armstrong said "one small step for man" or "one small step for a man." Other examples included a little-used, one-mile trolley in the nation's capital; a $500,000 study to determine whether "selfies" make people happier; and a $356,000 study to determine if Japanese quail are more sexually promiscuous when on cocaine.
Paul included the Afghan natural gas station in one of his regular waste reports. His staff drew from a 2015 report by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
That report indicated that the federal government ended up spending $42.7 million on the project.
Paul oversimplified the project's aims. The report did note that national gas costs about half of a comparable amount of gasoline in Afghanistan and burns cleaner than gas. But the now-defunded Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO), which financed the project, had other goals. Those included increasing the value of natural gas investments and demonstrating its commercial viability.
Politico, citing anonymous sources, reported in 2016 that the $43 million cost estimate was based on an erroneous assumption that $30 million in overhead applied entirely to the gas station when it actually covered many other projects.
Regardless of the cost, however, the SIGAR report suggests that the project was a disaster. As Paul suggested, the federal government did provide CNG cars to Afghanistan to create demand for the station — paying for the conversion of 120 vehicles.
"Ordinary Afghans simply couldn't afford to do it," the report stated. "Not surprisingly, SIGAR found no evidence that any other vehicles were converted to CNG."
SIGAR also questioned the cost, finding that the price tag of a similar facility in neighboring Pakistan would have been about $500,000. The report questioned why the Pentagon even pursued the project in the first place, given Afghanistan's limitations.
"In the absence of national or even regional natural gas transmission and local distribution infrastructure to support a network of CNG stations, there is no incentive for motorists to convert their vehicles to CNG," it stated.
"In fact, an economic impact assessment performed at the request of TFBSO found that the CNG filling station project produced no discernible macroeconomic gains and a discounted net loss of $31 million."