Defense Energy Reform Efforts Divorced From Political Reality
Senior officials such as Navy Secretary Ray Mabus — who oversaw post-BP oil spill recovery operations along the Gulf of Mexico — have spent much of the past two years trying to draw attention to the national security implications of the United States’ rising consumption of fossil fuels. But outside a relatively small cadre of green energy businesses, environmentalists and military contractors, the issue generally falls on deaf ears. The polarized political climate last year derailed major legislation, supported by Obama, that sought to address the effects of global climate change. The rise of climate change “denialism” truncated Obama’s energy agenda to just pro-natural gas and pro-clean coal policies.
Mabus says Defense Department leaders should be making a greater effort to educate the public about the “vulnerabilities” that oil dependence creates for the United States.
“It is part of my job to make it an issue,” he says at a news conference May 4, following a speech to the Jane’s Energy, Environment, Defense and Security Conference in Washington, D.C.
“Energy is a vulnerability,” he says. “We would not let countries that we buy petroleum products from build our aircraft, ships or vehicles But we give them say on whether those ships sail, those aircraft fly or those vehicles run,” he says. “We buy too much fuel from volatile places.” He also notes that the price of a barrel of oil over the past 18 months has jumped by $50, which translates into a billion and a half dollars of additional expense for the Navy. “As you go around the world, country after country recognizes this. … Countries are vitally interested in moving off fossil fuels.”
In the United States, however, Mabus acknowledges that political ideology has tainted the national discussion on energy. But he says he is confident that current Defense Department efforts will, over time, spur greater awareness that dependence on fossil fuels, particularly from foreign suppliers, is a national security issue.
“The climate change may be a side thing,” he says. But Mabus contends that even climate change deniers would appreciate what U.S. Marines are doing in Afghanistan — relying on solar power and cutting back on diesel generator usage — to become more energy independent. “I don’t think anyone’s ever accused the Marines of being tree-huggers,” Mabus says.
The Pentagon’s energy agenda is unique in that it is based on predictions that global climate change will foment armed conflicts in the future, as a result of food and water shortages and massive migrations across geographic areas. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review cited climate change as a potential accelerator of conflict. The Navy even plans its counter-piracy strategy for the Gulf of Aden based on projected climate change patterns that would affect pirate activities. In a presentation at the conference, Navy Capt. Tim Gallaudet, deputy director of the Navy’s “climate change task force,” showed how strategists identify areas of highest risks based on climate change projections. Rising sea levels that are expected to result from melting polar ice caps are amajor concern for U.S. naval forces, Navy Oceanographer Rear Adm. David Titley says.
The Pentagon’s Director of Operational Energy, Sharon Burke,wrote in 2008, when she was an energy analyst at the Center for a New American Security: “The temptation today is to address oil dependence and climate change as separate issues, but that would be a serious mistake.”
But even defense officials have downplayed expectations that Pentagon-fueled energy reforms can have widespread impact. The Defense Department currently consumes 2 percent of all U.S. fossil fuel. In the case of alternative fuels, “We can do a lot as a single consumer. But we can only do so much,” Burke says inan interview last summer. “We can’t really create a commercial market for biofuels. … We don’t have a large enough demand to do that.” But she says the Defense Department can be an important “catalyst” in the market.
Mabus strongly supports the U.S. military “taking the lead” in biofuel use, rather than wait for the commercial sector to make the leap. The Navy’s goal is to shift half its energy usage from fossil fuels to renewable sources by 2020. Skeptics have cast doubts on these plans, citing the high cost of biofuels and the absence of a national infrastructure to support the use of alternative fuels.
“A lot of people said you can’t do it,” Mabus says at the Jane’s conference. “It’s too expensive, there is no infrastructure … I’ll give them that today but I won’t give them that for very much longer.”