Generals Take Aim at Fossil Fuels

| Mon May 18, 2009 2:46 PM EDT

President Obama’s plans to reduce the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels face a thicket of political obstacles, but he may soon receive help from an unexpected quarter: the military. On Monday a group of retired generals gathered in Washington to urge the government to radically overhaul its energy policy. Their motivation wasn't purely environmental (although their presentation was punctuated by disapproving remarks about the overly chilly winds blasting from the air conditioning system), but was prompted by a stark assessment of the menace that climate change poses to the nation's safety. "America’s current energy posture constitutes a serious and urgent threat to our national security," said Gen. Charles Wald, a former deputy commander of the U.S. European Command. "We need diversification of energy sources and a serious commitment to renewable energy." 

A gathering of top military brass singing the praises of the smart grid might sound like a curiosity, but it shouldn't. The Department of Defense is the single largest consumer of energy in the U.S., and in 2008 its oil bill hit $20 billion (up from $13 billion in 2006.) Once you take into account the costs of guarding fuel sources and getting it to the battlefield, the true price the DOD pays for oil climbs to hundreds of dollars per gallon, the generals said. In Afghanistan, 70 percent of U.S. convoys carry fuel or water, so if the military uses less oil, it will put fewer troops in harm's way. As a result of these facts, even during the Bush administration's long years of inaction on global warming, the Pentagon forged ahead with initiatives to insulate tents and deploy solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal energy and hybrid vehicles on selected military bases.

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What was interesting about today's gathering was that the assembled generals weren't just talking about greening the Pentagon -- they were pushing for sweeping changes to national energy policy in order to ward off future conflicts. Gen. Wald observed bluntly that America's oil dependence ensnares it in unsavory relationships with dictatorships and "puts us in the untenable position of funding both sides of the [terrorism] conflict." He emphasized climate change's role as a "threat multiplier" that will contribute to increasing instability around the globe. General John Nathman, a former vice chief of naval operations, bemoaned the dilapidated state of our electrical grid and its vulnerability to breakdown or attack. Because the Department of Defense has such a complex spectrum of energy needs, he suggested, it could play an important role in testing new technologies like the smart grid for use by the general population.

Obama's Department of Defense is certainly receptive to this message. In the past year it has tripled its energy research and development budget, according to Ashton Carter, the new Undersecretary of Defense for Acquistions, Technology and Logistics, and will appoint a senior official to co-ordinate on energy policy. Carter also said mentioned that he hopes to collaborate with the Department of Energy to test innovations from the national labs. It all sounds very promising, but there are big questions about whether the cumbersome Pentagon bureaucracy can follow through on these ambitious goals.

If you're interested, check out the generals' full report, 

Powering America’s Defense: Energy and the Risks to National Security.