Columns / Discourse / May 23, 2012

Voice of Reason: Hostility to green military

There are some things you can count on the Republican Party for. One is a deep hostility towards government spending on alternative energy. Another is a fixation on national security above all else.

But what happens when these goals collide? Can the Republicans be counted on to put their ideological hang-ups aside for five seconds for the good of this country’s fighting men and women? The answer, unsurprisingly, turns out to be no.

As Fred Kaplan wrote for Slate last week, the Navy was recently planning an experiment that would have attempted to power a carrier group entirely off biofuels for two days. This was to have been the first major demonstration of Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus’ “Great Green Fleet” initiative, which aims to have a carrier group completely biofuel-powered by 2016 and have the Navy draw half its total power from alternative sources by 2020.

Mabus, along with many others in the Pentagon, worries that the volatile nature of the oil market is a serious threat to our largely petroleum-powered armed forces. A Pentagon study released in 2007 came to the conclusion that the expensive and unreliable nature of global oil supplies made the American military’s ability to sustain worldwide deployments “unsustainable in the long run.”

Fossil fuels also bring with them long and vulnerable supply lines. An Army report from 2009 concluded very starkly that oil dependence was killing soldiers because of the vulnerable nature of fuel convoys in Afghanistan. Vehicles and bases powered off of, say, solar panels, would reduce both carbon emissions and battlefield casualties.

Oblivious to all of this and alarmed by the fact that the Navy’s biofuel was four times more expensive than petroleum would have been, the House Armed Services Committee acted with all the rationality we have come to know and love from Capitol Hill and responded to news of Mabus’ fuel bill by banning all branches of the military from ever using fuel more expensive than petroleum.

Then, in a truly staggering display of chutzpah, Republicans on the committee proceeded to add a loophole to the law that would exempt coal and natural gas from these new requirements. As Wired’s Noah Shachtman dryly noted, “The armed services committee didn’t put limits on all alternative fuels — just the ones with environmental benefits.”

This means that the military is free to pursue the environmentally disastrous Fischer-Tropsch method of converting coal into oil no matter the cost, but it is not allowed to even consider spending money on any sort of biofuel until the price reaches that of gasoline.

The economic rationale for this is weak at best. Other than the fact that the total cost of the exercise comes out to $12 million, which in terms of the Pentagon’s annual budget makes it barely worthy of the phrase “drop in the bucket,” the quickest way to bring the cost of biofuels down would be for the military to commit itself to purchasing them. This would give the sector a stable large customer as well as the economies of scale that it needs to bring costs down.

Inventions from the microchip to the jet engine have followed this pattern. The first models are prohibitively expensive, but once the military starts buying, costs fall enough so that the technology in question becomes cost-effective for even the private sector.

Don’t minimize the ability the Pentagon has to play this role in the alternative energy market. The military is the largest energy consumer in the United States and is a big enough consumer to send shock waves through the whole industry with its purchasing decisions. A sustained commitment to green energy by the Pentagon could finally make these technologies competitive with fossil fuels.

But this decision was not really about economics. For one thing, a cursory look at the amount of money showered onto the Pentagon shows that controlling military spending is the furthest thing from a priority for most of Congress — particularly Republicans on the Armed Services Committee. If they were really interested in saving money, there is no shortage of military programs that could be cut.

No, the economically pointless coal and natural gas loophole shows beyond a doubt that this was not an economic decision. This was a decision motivated purely and simply by ideology. Even the lives of our troops in Afghanistan are pawns in the quest of Congressional Republicans, to block anything with a hint of Obama’s agenda on it.

It is rare that there can be a win-win situation for both the green movement and natural security hawks, but allowing Secretary Mabus to reach his goal would be one of them. That makes it even more of a pity that Congress has, once again, put the well-being of this country second to petty partisan interests.

On an entirely different note, I would like to thank everyone for reading this column this year. I really appreciate it, and I hope you all have a great summer.

Matt Barry
Matt Barry is a senior majoring in international relations and double minoring in economics and German. This is his third year working for TKS, having served previously as discourse editor. He has worked for such organizations as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Premier Tourism Marketing and the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago, where his work appeared in such publications as Leisure Group Travel, Ski & Ride Club Guide and The Chicago Monitor. Matt has written his political opinion column, "The Voice of Reason," weekly for three years, which finished in first place at the 2012 Illinois College Press Association conference and was also recognized at the 2013 conference.

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