DEFENSE DEPARTMENT

Energy Conservation Plans Overlook Military Realities

9/1/2006

BossAre skyrocketing oil prices just a temporary drain on the U.S. economy or a lasting national security threat?

If one is to draw conclusions from a recent stream of Pentagon policy directives, studies and congressional rhetoric, the Defense Department will soon have to get serious about taming its gargantuan appetite for fuel, most of which is imported from the volatile Middle East.

“The fact is that nearly every military challenge we face is either derived from or impacted by one thing: our reliance on fossil fuels and foreign energy sources,” says Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., who co-founded a “defense energy working group” with Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., and former CIA Director James Woolsey.

“In a world where we borrow money from China to purchase oil from unstable Persian Gulf countries to fuel our Air Force planes that protect us against potential threats from these very countries, it’s high-time to make the choices and investments necessary to protect our country,” Israel says.

When oil prices began to surge, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld issued one of his trademark “snowflake” memos asking aides to come up with energy-saving schemes and technologies, such as hybrid vehicles and innovative power sources.

In truth, it is hard to see how Rumsfeld’s directive could change the reality of a military that mostly operates guzzlers, and has no tangible plans to change that. Just two years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency gave the Pentagon a “national security exemption” so it can continue to drive trucks with old, energy-inefficient engines that don’t meet the emissions standards required for commercial trucks.

The Army once considered replacing the mother of all fuel-gorgers, the Abrams tank engine, with a more efficient diesel plant. But the Army leadership then reversed course because it was too expensive. Most recently, the Army cancelled a program to produce hybrid-diesel humvees, and has slowed down the development of other hybrid trucks in the medium and heavy fleets.

The Air Force has been contemplating the replacement of its surveillance, cargo and tanker aircraft engines, but the project was deemed too costly, and not worth any potential fuel savings.

Subsequent to Rumsfeld’s 2005 snowflake, a number of military and civilian Pentagon officials have been eager to publicize various science projects aimed at energy conservation, such as research into synthetic fuels, biofuels, hydrogen fuel cells, wind farms and solar power, to name a few.

But while these efforts have paid off on the public-relations front, they are not expected to translate into any real energy savings, at least for the foreseeable future.

“In the short term, there is very little that politicians or anyone can do about the military’s dependence on fuel for transportation,” says Herman Franssen, an energy consultant and researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

New technologies in synthetic fuels and fuel cells will take decades to produce realistic alternatives that can migrate to military vehicles, airplanes and non-nuclear powered ships. For at least the next 20 to 30 years, says Franssen, “oil will still be the most important fuel.”

Synthetic fuels are mostly a pipe dream. The only country that makes any significant amount of synthetic fuel is South Africa, whose apartheid government was forced to find an alterative to petroleum in the 1970s during a trade embargo. “The technology exists, but it’s costly and creates environmental problems,” Franssen says. Biofuels are promising, but it will be decades before they can substantially help to reduce oil consumption. Currently, just 4 percent of the gasoline sold in the United States is mixed with corn-derived ethanol.

Any lasting solution to the energy crisis also has to take into account that even though the Defense Department is the largest single consumer of fuel in the United States, it expends only 1.8 percent of the country’s total transportation fuel.

In 2005, for example, the Pentagon purchased 133 million barrels of oil, for the entire year. By comparison, the United States consumes 21 million barrels of oil per day, 14 million of which are imported.

The price of oil, rather than an immediate security concern, is a financial menace for the Pentagon. While the Defense Department paid $5.4 billion in 2003 to purchase 142 million barrels of oil, it had to fork out $8.6 billion to buy 133 million barrels in 2005.

Although the Pentagon gets a volume discount, it experiences the same fluctuations in the market place as the general public, says a spokesman for the Defense Energy Supply Center. Large increases in energy prices are accommodated through reprogramming of funds and budget amendments.

The energy crunch should be no surprise to the Pentagon. Winston Churchill saw it coming in 1911, when he predicted that securing oil supplies would be a major challenge for the British Royal Navy and its allies in World War I. “To commit the navy irrevocably to oil was indeed to take arms against a sea of troubles,” he wrote.

With no sign of peace in the Middle East, the Pentagon, like the rest of us, is indeed adrift on Churchill’s proverbial sea of troubles.

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