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Short-Term Politics Stifles Pentagon's Green Energy Ambitions

Posted on Mon, 28 May 2012 22:59 | 0

The US Defense Department consumes more energy than any other department or sector in the country, spending around $20 billion annually by some estimates; but ambitious plans to make it the nation’s green leader have been swept under the rug over budgetary concerns that smack of campaign politics.

It is an inauspicious development for US energy independence, and indeed a contradictory one. The Defense Department is reeling under higher fuel costs already, which have left it short some $3 billion. A stronger focus on alternative fuels will cost more in the immediate and near-term, but in the longer-term, it is a smarter strategy.  

Last week, the Senate Armed Services Committee in a vote dampened the military’s green ambitions, refusing to allow a major shift to alternative fuels if they end up costing more than fossil fuels. They have also nixed the idea of the Pentagon building its own biofuels refinery or other biofuels facilities.

The Senate Armed Services Committee is largely divided right down the middle, as demonstrated by the 13-12 vote in favor of putting the brakes on green defense efforts.

Senator John McCain, the top Republican on the Committee, opposes what he sees as overly ambitious and expensive green initiatives (in the current political climate, that is). “In a tough budget climate for the Defense Department, we need every dollar to protect our troops on the battlefield with energy technologies that reduce fuel demand and save lives,” he told the Committee.

The White House objects to the vote as it would reduce the Pentagon’s capability to “procure alternative fuels and would further increase American reliance on fossil fuels, thereby contributing to geopolitical instability and endangering our interests abroad”.

This long-term vision was in part laid out in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, but also in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, section 203, which lays out a plan for the US Army’s contribution of renewable energy to an installation’s total electricity consumption.

The Armed Forces are very much on board for greening up. Both the Navy and the Air Force are interested in creating a stronger reliance on biofuels with the overall goal of reducing dependence on foreign oil.

Cutting the Pentagon’s investment potential in renewable energy is unaccountably short-sighted, and the cost-benefit analysis less than comprehensive.

The Pentagon’s renewable energy initiative, “Operational Energy Strategy”, was specifically intended to render its energy needs independent. After all, dependence on foreign oil ends up costing the Pentagon about $20 billion annually. Arguably, that dependence also leads to conflict and death, so the cost is enormous beyond the realm of paper currency. In addition, this dependence means that US forces are constantly guarding fuel convoys that come under attack from enemy forces.

It also pays to look at some of the Pentagon’s clean energy successes. For instance, the DoD has successfully developed hybrid tank batteries that allow them to go farther without fueling. Portable solar power has also been useful on the front lines in Afghanistan and reduces the frequency of fuel convoys that risk attack. (Keeping in mind that the US military goes through goes through more than 50 million gallons of fuel monthly.)

Marines use GREENS solar power, first used in Iraq in 2009, to provide continuous electricity in remote locations, and then in Afghanistan beginning in 2010. 

“Better fuel economy for our aircraft means we can extend the range of our strike missions enabling us to base them farther away from combat areas. Being more efficient and more independent, more diverse in our sources of fuel improves our combat capability both strategically and tactically,” Tom Hicks, the Navy’s deputy assistant secretary for energy, said in 2011.

According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the DoD was the leader in 2010 of solar energy initiatives, accounting for more than 20 percent of all government solar initiatives. (It is also the lead polluter). Renewable energy sources could help the Pentagon “achieve its mission by, among other benefits, expanding and securing necessary energy supplies to reduce dependence on foreign oil.”

So why the short-sightedness in the vote to reduce the Pentagon’s clean energy ambitions? Undermining the Pentagon’s alternative energy plans can only be political, and specifically a Republican attempt to undermine the largely energy-focused campaign of President Barack Obama. After the elections, it should regain lost traction the next time it comes around for a vote.

By. Jen Alic of

Jen Alic is a geopolitical analyst, co-founder of ISA Intel in Sarajevo and Tel Aviv, and the former editor-in-chief of ISN Security Watch in Zurich.

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