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My Heart-Stopping Ride Aboard the Navy's Great Green Fleet

With Washington frozen solid on climate, the Navy is breaking the ice.

Ships and submarines participating in last year's Rim of the Pacific exercise.
Ships and submarines participating in last year's Rim of the Pacific exercise Keith Devinney/US Navy

Remarkably, there's very little opposition inside the Navy. "Some of the oldest, most experienced officers, if you'd asked them 10 years ago, they'd say we should never change our energy ways," Capt. James Goudreau, director of the Navy Energy Coordination Office, tells me. "But now they're in the position that they actually have to run the fleet, have to manage and pay for its operations. They see that we can't afford to do what we used to do."

Plus petroleum isn't the bargain it seems. Factor in the price of guarding and moving it from the Middle East. Factor in the battlefield cost of transporting a gallon of fuel across oceans to a coastal facility in Pakistan, or airlifting it to Kandahar, then loading it onto a truck, guarding that truck, and delivering it to a battlefield. In extreme cases, that single gallon of gasoline can cost the DOD up to $400. "That's too high a price to pay for fuel," says Mabus, a former governor of Mississippi who became a renewables convert while serving as US ambassador to Saudi Arabia in the Clinton administration. "In the drive for energy reform, and this is critical, the goal has got to be increased warfighting capability. Too many of our platforms and too many of our systems are gas hogs."

In extreme cases, a single gallon of gasoline can cost the DOD up to $400. For every 24 fuel convoys in Afghanistan, a US soldier or civilian contractor was killed or wounded.

The lethal costs of petroleum are even higher. For every 24 fuel convoys the United States transported in Afghanistan in 2007, a soldier or civilian contractor was killed or wounded. And extreme volatility can make it difficult to judge what the worst-case scenario could be. "Every time the cost of a barrel of oil goes up a dollar, it costs the United States Navy $31 million in extra fuel costs," Mabus says. When oil spiked in 2008, the Navy suddenly had to forecast "our fuel bill rising from roughly $1.2 to $5.1 billion" over a few years, says Vice Adm. Cullom. "When your fuel bill goes up that much, you've got to ask yourself, 'What are you not going to do?' You're either going to buy fewer ships, fewer planes and tactical vehicles, or you're going to buy less fuel and not send your ships out."

"The cheapest barrel of fuel is the one we never burn," Goudreau tells me. "Eighty-five percent of what we do each year is chasing efficiency." To foster this kind of thinking, the Navy is grooming a new generation of "energy warriors" at its Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Fuel-saving incentives are factored into promotions servicewide. In 2011, these efforts saved 11 percent of fuel costs, awarding the Navy an additional 56,500 hours of "free" steaming time at sea. The initiative was so successful that a similar program has been launched to optimize fuel consumption aboard the Navy's 3,700 aircraft. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, Marines using solar panels have reduced their need for fuel and battery deliveries at forward operating bases by up to 90 percent.

As for the thorny problem of scaling up to operational biofuel, the Navy is investing $170 million in American biofuel companies, an amount matched by the departments of Agriculture and Energy. And not just any (or only) biofuels. "The Navy is mindful of not trading one fuel problem for another," Goudreau says. "Our alternative fuels can't compete with food crops. We don't want to alter the price of food and then cause regional instability that we have to respond to. That would be shortsighted. We can't drive up big irrigation requirements. Plus our fuels have to meet congressional language requiring a carbon footprint the same or smaller than petroleum." This reflects the way the Navy bills itself in an era where "It's not just a job, it's an adventure" has been superseded by "A global force for good," a philanthropic-sounding slogan thought to appeal to recruits less excited by pure martialism. Goudreau describes how US ships were forced to turn away from relief work off Japan after the 2011 earthquake. "Because our ships consume energy at the rate they do, we had to steam over the horizon to refuel, and then come back," he says. "The ability to operate more efficiently means we could stay on station an extra day or three when it absolutely counts the most."

Goudreau echoes what all the Navy people tell me: Where the Navy leads, others will follow. That's no small matter when you consider that in 2008 more than 90 percent of global trade traveled by ocean aboard 90,000-plus cargo ships burning the foulest of fuels, making shipping the sixth-biggest CO2 emitter after China, the United States, Russia, India, and Japan. Goudreau is confident that once the Navy tests and finds the best fuels, commercial fleets—both shipping and aviation—will drive the price to competitiveness and, in a virtuous cycle, further relieve the pressure on the Navy to protect oil supplies. "If we do this right," he says, "we'll turn vulnerability into capability."

"We're definitely motivated," says Robert Sturtz, formerly of United Airlines, one of several industry executives on the Nimitz today to see firsthand how fighter jets and other naval aircraft fare with the Navy's biofuel in their tanks. "We're already facing carbon emissions taxes in European airports," he says. "We have to find ways to bring those costs down."

The Navy pilots aboard the Nimitz are cool with biofuels. "I'm happy to be part of history," says Lieutenant Adam Niekras, an MH-60R Seahawk helicopter pilot. "And I saw no difference in performance at all." Lt. Commander Jason Fox, pilot of an E-2C Hawkeye, a radar early warning plane, reflects: "The military has done a lot of things that started a tidal wave in our culture. Plus, I'd really rather not fight to defend fossil fuels if there are alternatives." Fox flies with the VAW-117 "Wallbangers" squadron. In their ready room, which boasts a banner that reads "Bangers Lead the Way," they're peddling squadron T-shirts to press and dignitaries that read: "Keeping the Earth Green, One Bag of Biofuel at a Time."

Last May, the House and Senate armed services committees voted to kill biofuels, but in December, a few Republicans defected to help Congress reverse that decisions.

Sure, the Great Green Fleet demonstration is a public-relations gesture. But it seems to be spin in defense of a genuine sea change. Last May, the House and Senate armed services committees voted to kill biofuels, but after the RIMPAC demo, Congress reversed that decision. Congress also voted to remove obstacles preventing the Navy's plan to invest $170 million in companies building advanced biofuels refineries—an amount matched by both the Agriculture and Energy departments. Along with more than $53 billion in future public-private investments, this plan opens the door for at least 13 billion gallons of advanced biorefinery production capacity to come online in the next decade, according to clean-tech analysts Pike Research. These will be among America's first commercial-scale biorefineries, forecast to create up to 17,000 new jobs. Which may well mark the tipping point Capt. Goudreau suggested, the moment when the reassurance from long-term military contracts begins to propel a competitive and self-perpetuating market. Already, since the Navy starting buying biofuels in 2009, the price per gallon has dropped by more than half. "The Navy's leadership has already sped up the commercialization of advanced biofuels by at least a decade and set this important option on a path to commercial viability at scale," says Amory Lovins, chair and chief scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute, who helped prod the Navy toward clean energy. "It has primed the pump for great flows of scaling and innovation." Mabus is optimistic: "I believe that if the Navy can fully pursue its initiatives, [biofuels] will reach cost-competitiveness in 2016—four years ahead of the 2020 target date."

When recently asked by Esquire about his most important legacy as defense secretary, Leon Panetta cited the energy paradigm, especially in the Navy: "Our ability to develop alternative energy and energy independence not only saves money, but it's an investment in our national security."

I'VE TAKEN ONE BITE of my lunch in the officer's wardroom when Capt. Kevin Mannix, commander of the carrier air wing, runs up and tags me on the shoulder. "Wanna see the Australian helicopter land?" I do. But what about lunch? He shrugs and jogs for the door. Everything in the Navy moves fast. Already I've hiked miles at a punishing pace up and down countless ladders connecting decks to get from one end of the ship to the other while circumventing the things the Navy doesn't want me to see. The Nimitz crew is frustrated by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), which is running an hour and a half behind schedule for the meeting. Tardiness, I gather, is keelhauled out of sluggish US sailors, and my escorts struggle to hide the WTF looks on their faces. Australians, on the other hand, have pubs on their navy ships. Since I'm half Australian, I find myself enjoying the clash of cultures.

Mannix drives me up 12 levels at breakneck speed, shoves a cranial and two "foamies" (earplugs) at me, and tells me to protect myself. Then he ushers me out to Vultures Row, the viewing deck six levels above the flight deck, to watch a Seahawk helicopter from the Australian frigate HMAS Perth set down: a battleship-gray butterfly alighting on the Nimitz's stern. As its passengers unfold from the interior, Nimitz deck crew wearing the purple jerseys of fuelers run out a hose to top it off with biofuel nectar—the first RAN aircraft ever to feed on the stuff.

The Aussie fleet commander, Rear Adm. Tim Barrett, is piped aboard and ushered below to the stage of a hangar bay reconfigured for the day's historic signing. Behind a small table that looks like it might double for a poker game later that night, he delivers to Secretary Mabus a statement of understanding that the navies will cooperate on stabilizing biofuel prices and supplies toward the common goals of a permanent Green Fleet deployment in 2016 and on helping the US Navy attain its goal of having its nonnuclear fleet powered by a 50-50 biofuel blend by 2020. The Aussies are here because Australian government-funded research has shown that algal biodiesel is cheaper than fossil diesel in terms of both money and carbon, and because government-funded companies are already scaling up toward large algae-growing operations in open saline ponds. "Western Australia has some great places and an ideal climate to grow and develop algae in saltwater," US Navy Vice Adm. Cullom tells me. Better than anywhere in the United States. Add algae to other advanced biofuels and you might just get enough to meet the Navy's 2020 goal of 8 million barrels per year. "We are here to learn what we need to do to remain interoperable with the US," Barrett told the Australian. "We'd be mad not to be involved."

Practically speaking, the Aussies are also here because of a fundamental geopolitical shift under way in the United States. "After a decade in which we fought two wars that cost us dearly in blood and treasure," President Obama told the Australian Parliament in 2011, "the United States is turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia Pacific region." That includes deploying 2,500 Marines to Australia's Northern Territory and sending more warplanes, ships, and submarines through Down Under ports. China is the concern, along with the South China Sea, a body of water that lies closer to Australia than Chicago is to San Francisco and is believed to sit atop vast oil and gas reserves. China calls it the second Persian Gulf and now claims much of its waters as its own—to the alarm of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei. The scramble over who can drill a hole where in that seafloor is already escalating into battles between Chinese and Filipino fishing boats while drawing warning shouts from faraway Russia, India, and the United States.

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