There is building interest by Senator Chuck Grassley’s office in the arrangement that Google has with NASA and its Ames Research Center. Of the many questions raised by the Senator, one in particular concerns why Google, which houses an air fleet consisting of several jets at Ames, including but not limited to a Boeing 767, a Boeing 757, and a couple of Gulfstream 550’s, may be paying discounted fuel taxes for its jets.
To be sure, currently it’s a bit unclear as to what Google is paying to fuel its air fleet. It could be that Google is exempt from the fuel tax, which for Jet-A was 21.9¢ per gallon in 2007. But one report indicates that Google is paying as low as half-price, or 50¢ on the dollar, for Jet-A. Just to put this into perspective, Jet-A fuel retails for between $5.95 at Palo Alto Airport (PAO) and $8.09 at San Francisco International (SFO).One of the justifications for Google’s fleet of aircraft being housed at Ames was that they would be used to conduct scientific research, a sort of merging of business with science. It was a hallmark deal between government and business. Interestingly, we haven’t read that HP, Apple, or other companies were invited to participate in a similar deal. In any case, according to Senator Grassley, only around 5% of flights by the Google air fleet could be considered scientific in nature.
So is the fuel price question really a big deal? The maximum fuel capacity of a B-767 ER is 23,980 U.S. gallons, which translates into a price range of $142,681 to $193,998 using the above prices. If Google is getting preferential treatment in jet fuel prices, that could mean a loss to tax-payers of between $70,000 and $97,000. Per flight. Considering the number of flights mentioned in Senator Grassley’s May 14 letter, that could be quite a bit of money.
Another issue raised by Senator Grassley in an earlier letter, dated April 18, 2012, concerns possible ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) violations and other unspecified national security lapses. The Senator’s letter speaks for itself.
If any of this is true, the real question is who negotiated the deal with Google, what was the basis for doing so, and why are American tax-payers subsidizing jet fuel expenses for the largest search company in the world and getting little in return? If security violations have occurred at Ames, have the security shortfalls that led to those violations been resolved? Senator Grassley’s concerns raised in his two letter will hopefully be answered soon by the NASA Administrator.
Update: After reading the April 18th letter from Senator Grassley to NASA Administrator Bolden, it was my feeling that, given the gravity of the concerns raised, the letter’s contents should stand on their own. That sadly led to some confusion, which in hindsight seems reasonable. Why are two letters covering two distinctly different topics included in one post with commentary only on one of those letters? In that light, my post doesn’t make it obvious that the gist of Senator Grassley’s letters to NASA Administrator Bolden are that something is amiss at Ames.
In an effort to clarify confusion, the post and its title has been updated. Content was not removed. A paragraph was moved up, another appended by two sentences, and a short paragraph added to address the April 18th letter.