Colorado U.S. Senator Mark Udall Wednesday unveiled an updated version of the Energy Security Act he worked with Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords to introduce last year. The bill aims to boost increasing military efforts to move away from dependence on fossil fuels.
“Osama bin Laden reportedly called our fuel convoys the military’s ‘umbilical cord.’ We risk the lives of thousands of troops each year because of our dependence on fossil fuel in theater and at home,” Udall said. “We owe it to our troops and the American people to find ways to use energy smarter and more efficiently.”
In a release, Udall said the cost in blood is paired with enormous financial outlays. The military spends $20 billion a year on energy, consuming 135 million barrels of oil and 30 million megawatt-hours of electricity.
No time for politics
In fact, as Udall points out, Capitol Hill lags on the issue. The Pentagon move toward renewable energy has been characterized in the last half-decade by an urgency that doesn’t tolerate usual U.S. energy politics and congressional dithering.
With an annual budget in the hundreds of billions, the military makes its own markets for all kinds of products and services, and energy is no different. Military leaders have simply decided they need to use renewables and have begun ordering technology, circumventing fraught Capitol Hill stand-offs on climate change and turf battles over whether taxpayers should be subsidizing this or that energy-industry sector.
National security analysts underline the added benefit that comes of the military push, pointing out that, as the military market for renewables expands, technology will improve and become cheaper and more practical for use in the private sector. The more renewable energy power we use and the sooner we start using it, they say, the faster we will move away from entanglements with unstable oil-producing nations.
When spending on clean energy becomes Defense spending
Indeed, Udall’s bill will throw the energy policy positions of colleagues like Colorado Springs GOP Congressman Doug Lamborn under a spotlight.
Lamborn’s 5th District is home to several military bases and is dotted with Pentagon contractors. Lamborn has consistently pushed for no-holds-barred Defense Department funding, personally earmarking tens of millions in military projects for his district in the short time he has been in Washington.
But Lamborn is also a staunch defender of the fossil fuel industry and recently signed a letter with nine other Republicans asking Congress to strip the government’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado’s 7th District of funding, arguing that lawmakers “should not follow the president’s poor planning in increasing the funding for these anti-energy boondoggles.”
With the Pentagon framing its no-nonsense transition to renewables as a matter of national security and troop effectiveness, partisan-soaked resistance like Lamborn’s argued on ideological “free-market” grounds, will likely fall away fast.
The bill, for example, would bolster programs like the Army “Net Zero Installations” pilot program, which Fort Carson in Lamborn’s district has been selected to join. Under the program, Fort Carson will be experimenting with ways to only use as much water and energy as the base produces and to recycle all waste, looking to achieve a “net zero” energy footprint. That kind of practice is crucial to win on battlefields in places like the wilds of Waziristan.
As Udall points out, the military’s present reliance on fuel supply convoys lumbering across mountain passes in Afghanistan and Pakistan and in the open deserts of the Middle East is anachronistic and untenable.
The Army reported last year that for every 24 fuel convoys that set out, one soldier or civilian member of a convoy was killed. In a three-month span just preceding a story on the convoys published by the New York Times last fall, six Marines had been wounded guarding fuel transport in Afghanistan.
The Times story detailed in-theater military renewable initiatives underway that see portable solar panels, tent shields and chargers for computers and communications equipment sparing soldiers the need to use convoy-borne oil and kerosene.
The Navy coming knocking
The Times story also captured the determined quality of the Pentagon to re-power the military as soon as possible.
“There are a lot of profound reasons for doing this, but for us at the core it’s practical,” said Ray Mabus, the Navy secretary and a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, who has said he wants 50 percent of the power for the Navy and Marines to come from renewable energy sources by 2020. That figure includes energy for bases as well as fuel for cars and ships.
“Fossil fuel is the No. 1 thing we import to Afghanistan,” Mr. Mabus said, “and guarding that fuel is keeping the troops from doing what they were sent there to do, to fight or engage local people.”
Fossil fuel accounts for 30 to 80 percent of the load in convoys into Afghanistan, bringing costs as well as risk. While the military buys gas for just over $1 a gallon, getting that gallon to some forward operating bases costs $400.
Military interest in biofuels has jumped, including fuel made from algae. Truck-mounted technology will soon be able to make fuel from native plants on the ground near battlefields.
The Navy reported that a new hybrid amphibious assault ship traveling from Mississippi to San Diego used 900,000 less gallons of fuel than its traditional counterparts would have done.
“Every time you cut a ship away from the need to visit an oiler — a fuel supply ship — you create an advantage,” Mabus told the Times. He explained that the Navy in particular had in the past pioneered the kind of energy transformations he wants to see happen again, moving from wind to coal and then to oil and nuclear power over the last two centuries.
“If the Navy comes knocking, they will build it,” Mabus said.