U.S. military going green

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Issue at stake: Can environmentalism and national security coexist?

The U.S. military’s recent move to lessen its use of fossil fuels is evidence of a laudable trend that the Obama administration and the Pentagon are taking their environmental responsibility seriously. They are recognizing that a clean, healthy environment is something that we should fight to defend and not destroy in preparing for and waging war. This year, while Congress struggled unsuccessfully to pass legislation on climate change and state and federal government agencies put renewable energy on hold due to the recession, the military took significant steps in pursuing renewable energy and decreasing its energy consumption.

The federal government is the largest energy consumer in the United States. Using nearly 300,000 barrels of oil each day, the Defense Department is responsible for 80 percent of the federal government’s energy usage. On October 5, 2009, President Obama signed Executive Order 13514, Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance. In response, the Pentagon set an emission reduction target of 34 percent by 2020, higher than any other federal agency and higher than the 28 percent President Obama has announced as a requirement for the federal government.

To achieve the emission reduction target, the military is already taking steps to increase its reliance on renewable energy and to reduce its energy consumption overall. In July, the Pentagon appointed its first director of operational energy plans programs, with a mission to “reduce the amount for energy needed in war zones, and decrease the risk to troops that transport and guard the military’s fuel.” All branches of the military have taken steps toward sustainable development and environmentally friendly practices: the Army has been testing tents that trap warm and cool air and developing diesel-electric trucks; the Marines are using solar-powered water purification systems and spray insulation for tents; the Navy has a comprehensive model for development of biofuels; and the Air Force hopes to have an entire fleet certified to fly on biofuels by 2011.

The 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment’s Company I was the first to take renewable technology into the battle zone. The 150 Marines involved in the mission traveled to Afghanistan with “portable solar panels that fold up into boxes, energy conserving lights, solar tent shields that provide shade and electricity, and solar chargers for computers and communication equipment.” In the past, the large truck convoys that brought fuel to bases in Afghanistan were easy targets for enemy combatants. One Army study found that for every 24 convoys, one soldier or civilian engaged in the transport was killed. If the military is successful in providing its personnel with independently sustainable methods of energy production, the dangerous convoys will no longer be required.

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Significance: Although the creation of national environmental policy generally requires overcoming a variety of political obstacles, leaders of the U.S. military can simply order its forces to adopt practices that reflect broader national goals. The Pentagon has not only the internal power to change its methods of energy consumption but also the buying power to create new products and markets. Through research, development, and purchasing, the military can make renewable energy more affordable and available for everyday use. And by a variety of environmentally friendly practices, including increased reliance on renewable energy, it can save the country money and increase the safety of men and women in service.

The Defense Department can also promote these goals through collaboration with other entities, both inside and outside the government. It has already begun to do this in developing renewable energy projects. Last spring, for example, the Pentagon invited manufacturers to share technology and products that could be beneficial on the battlefield. The Navy has signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to work together to encourage development of biofuels and other renewable energy sources. And the Defense Department and the Air Transport Association of America have joined forces to promote and develop “environmentally friendly aviation fuels.”

Next steps: Within the last year, we saw strong evidence not only of the Pentagon’s commitment to making this country more secure, but also of an aggressive new push to reduce the military’s massive carbon footprint. For both strategic and tactical reasons, the Defense Department has increased its efforts to promote fuel efficiency, greater reliance on renewable fuels, and stricter compliance with a variety of environmental protection laws. Especially through collaboration with other entities, the Pentagon has fostered research and development of new, green products and begun to create new markets for such products. We expect these initiatives to expand in the future.