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Juliette Kayyem

The Pentagon is stopped from going green

heather hopp-bruce/the boston globe

When a bunch of Birkenstock-wearing environmentalists clamor for cleaner energy alternatives — biofuels, solar, or wind — it’s not entirely a surprise when Senate Republicans scoff in response. But it is odd that when military leaders make the same recommendation, those same legislators don’t even budge. Much worse, they have now prohibited Big Green from going green.

When Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testifies before Congress next week, he will be waging an uphill battle to preserve the Pentagon’s energy-efficient programs. Despite the fact that the Pentagon is the single biggest consumer of fossil fuels in the entire world, the Senate Armed Services Committee recently voted to prohibit the military from spending money “for the production or sole purchase of an alternative fuel.”

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The Senate committee, on a near-party line vote with Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jim Webb of Virginia voting with the Republicans, banned the Pentagon from buying alternative fuels or building any facilities to manufacture them “if the cost exceeds the cost of traditional fossil fuels used for the same purpose.” Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown is for the prohibition; New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen is against it. Maine’s Susan Collins did not vote, claiming that she had to take an important call, but has promised to be with the Pentagon on any floor debate.

Fossil fuels are obviously cheaper than any alternatives to date; that is why, of course, we use them. But alternatives are getting competitive; in recent years, biofuels have gone from $400 a gallon to $26. And price should be only one barometer for a 21st century military. The military’s dependence on oil means not only that we will fight wars to protect our access to it, but that we will suffer in wars because of our insatiable appetite for it.

Fuel convoys are particularly subject to attack by hostile forces, and half of the Marines killed in Afghanistan and Iraq were supporting fuel transportation. Oil and water are the two commodities we import the most to the battlefield; the long line of a supply chain is a welcome mat for every IED and enemy. The biggest cost driver in the Pentagon’s shrinking budget is oil; fuel increases in 2011 and 2012 cost the government an extra $3 billion.

In addition, many of the military instruments that use fossil fuels are just plain noisy. And the constant hum of machinery is a battlefield liability. As one senior Pentagon official told me about threats in Afghanistan: “It’s amazing what you can hear when the generators are off.”

The Pentagon’s recent move toward energy efficiency is simply sound military planning. Steps include more reliance on biofuels so that a competitive market can be established and geographically dispersed plants can be built; portable solar batteries to reduce the weight on a Marine’s back; and green fleets for our dirty oceans. The Seals are even clamoring for more equipment that is light and clean — leaving no footprint.

The motivation for the Senate committee vote may be monetary savings, but the numbers, though substantial, show that clean energy is hardly the only big-ticket item on the Pentagon ledger. The entire green initiative requires a $170 million annual investment, a fraction of the average cost of a Navy ship.

The most likely explanation, other than pleasing the oil lobby, is that those who voted for the prohibition have a very narrow view of the military’s traditional role in innovation. Representative Randy Forbes of Virginia snarked to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, a key champion of new energy sources for the Pentagon: “You’re not the secretary of energy.”

But he kind of is. What the committee vote ignores is the extent to which the military has played a crucial role as an early adopter of breakthrough technology. And as a big customer, its efficiency efforts would create the kind of market needed to make “going green” bring in the green. If only it could.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com and Twitter
@juliettekayyem
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