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Lots of questions about DOD's $43 million gas station in Afghanistan

The compressed natural gas station was supposed to help Afghanistan decrease their reliance on oil imports by building natural gas demand. But the Defense Department didn’t study whether this was actually feasible, according to a government watchdog.

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John F. Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 10, 2014, before the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa hearing on Examining US Reconstruction Efforts in Afghanistan. According to SIGAR's latest report, released in October, the Department of Defense sunk $43 million into a compressed natural gas station without conducting any feasibility studies to determine whether Afghans would actually be able to convert from oil to natural gas.

Charles Dharapak/AP/File

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In a report to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, a federal inspector can’t contain his astonishment over an “ill-conceived” compressed natural gas station built by the US Department of Defense in Afghanistan for $43 million of US taxpayers' money – 140 times more than it should have cost.

Such a station would have cost a maximum of $500,000 in neighboring Pakistan, wrote John F. Sopko, of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR),  a group created by Congress in 2008 to monitor Afghanistan reconstruction projects and activities.

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“Even considering security costs associated with construction and operation in Afghanistan, this level of expenditure appears gratuitous and extreme,” Mr. Sopko wrote to Secretary Carter in his October report.

What’s more, writes Sopko, the DOD’s task force responsible for building the gas station has refused to cooperate in the investigation, claiming that since the project ended in spring, the DOD can’t find anyone to answer Mr. Sopko’s questions.

“Frankly, I find it both shocking and incredible that DOD asserts that it no longer has any knowledge about TFBSO (Task Force for Stability and Business Operations), an $800 million program that reported directly to the Office of the Secretary of Defense and only shut down a little over six months ago,” Sopko wrote in the report.

“I intend to continue our inquiry into TFBSO activities to shed additional light on how this program operated, what it achieved, how this enormous amount of money was spent, and whether any conduct by TFBSO staff or contractors was criminal in nature."

According to SIGAR’s website, $110 billion has been appropriated for Afghanistan relief and reconstruction since 2002.  

Afghanistan imports all of its oil even though it has vast natural gas reserves, explains the SIGAR report. To wean the country off oil imports by building demand for domestic natural gas, the DOD’s task force set out to build and operate Afghanistan's first compressed natural gas filling station in the city of Sheberghan. 

But the DOD didn’t study whether this was feasible, Sopko reports. If it had, the department would have learned that the cost of converting gasoline-powered cars to run on natural gas is prohibitively expensive for the average Afghan.

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“In sum, it is not clear why TFBSO believed the CNG filling station should be undertaken,” Sopko wrote in his report.

According to The Washington Post, legislators including Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri, a member of the Armed Services Committee, have demanded more information from the DOD.

In a letter to Secretary Carter, Senator McCaskill wrote, “There are few things in this job that literally make my jaw drop.”

She continued, “But of all the examples of wasteful projects in Iraq and Afghanistan that the Pentagon began prior to our wartime contracting reforms, this genuinely shocked me.”