The ideological war against renewable energy


This blog's headline may sound hyperbolic. But I'm not sure how else to interpret Republicans' latest congressional hijinks. A couple weeks ago, the House passed a Defense budget that prohibits the department from using or experimenting with alternative fuels that are more costly than oil -- which they all are -- unless those fuels are derived from coal or natural gas. How's that for non-sensical favoritism? Last week, the Senate Armed Services Committee followed suit, approving amendments to the Defense budget introduced by Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe and Arizona Sen. John McCain barring the military from purchasing alternative fuels with higher price tags than conventional fossil fuels, and stopping the Defense Department from building its own biofuels refinery. Coal state Democrat Joe Manchin, W.V., and Virginia Democrat Jim Webb, who has bucked his party to protect Big Oil subsidies, joined Republicans in voting for the amendments.

Yes, that would be the same John McCain who, oh so many moons ago, was a champion for federal climate change policy. And yes, that would be the military that he, the Senate's chief science skeptic, and their House colleagues are defying. Isn't that illegal or something? 

The military has made an impressive push in recent years to diversify and clean up its power and fuel supplies. It's built utility-scale solar installations at its bases to protect itself from outages or attacks on the regular grid (though achieving total independence from the grid has proved complicated). It's made its combat operations lighter and more efficient with things like solar battery chargers and energy efficient light bulbs, reducing costs and the need for supply convoys, which have been the victims of frequent attacks in Afghanistan. And it's begun researching alternative fuels, to reduce its fleets' vulnerability to volatile oil prices.

Republican opponents of this last effort decry it in the name of fiscal discipline. Indeed, experimental biofuels are many times more expensive than good ol' gasoline. But should any of the fuels the military is researching and testing prove viable, the market they -- as the single thirstiest oil guzzler in the world -- could create would drive prices for those alternative fuels down. Would that shift make the fuels economical for them, or even you and I? Maybe, maybe not. But as Slate's Fred Kaplan points out, "some of modern history’s most revolutionary devices started out as too expensive; and they would have stayed that way -- they might never have got off the ground -- had the federal government not created the market. And since, in American politics, the military and space programs have been the federal government’s only sources of manufacturing, it’s the Pentagon and NASA that have created those markets."

Plus, it's hard to see the Republicans' concern for the bottom line as genuine when you consider the exemptions for coal-to-liquid fuels and natural gas, and that the House Defense budget overshoots a compromise budget between President Obama and Republicans by $8 billion and calls for the "construction of a missile defense site on the East Coast that the military opposes," according to the AP.

The Defense Department also opposes Congressional efforts to tie its hands on alternative fuels. Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations for the Navy, wrote this to the Senate committee, according to Science Insider: "While the Navy does not intend to purchase alternative liquid fuels for operational use until they are price competitive with petroleum-based fuels, the Navy needs flexibility to continue the testing and certification of all potential alternative fuel pathways to ensure the Navy has an 'off-ramp' from conventional fuel sources. ... I believe this will impede America's energy security."

Of course, it's not really the military that Inhofe, McCain or House Republicans are after. It's Obama.
“(Defense) Secretary (Leon) Panetta’s commitment of a billion dollars for alternative fuels makes clear that, despite President Obama’s recent change in rhetoric for his reelection campaign, he remains fully determined to implement his all-out attack on traditional American energy development -- and the military is one place where he can force it to happen,” Inhofe said in a speech on the Senate floor earlier this month.

In the interest of considering facts in this debate, however, let me remind you that the military's green makeover is not Obama's creation. It was George W. Bush who first directed the military to reduce its energy consumption and add more renewables to the mix.

Cally Carswell is HCN's assistant editor.

Photo: President Obama gives a speech about energy and solar power at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Courtesy Nellis Air Force Base 

Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
May 30, 2012 02:55 PM
Unlike GOP idealists, the military has to be pragmatic. Our weakest link is the length of our supply lines in Afghanistan, something idealists and table-top generals ignore. If our military technology could adapt to ANY fuel supply, hydrocarbon-based or otherwise, that supply line becomes less vulnerable.
Janine Blaeloch
Janine Blaeloch
May 30, 2012 03:12 PM
This article made me realize I have never before seen the phrase "traditional energy development (Inhofe)." Which may now join the lexicon of the hysterics trying to protect "traditional marriage" and all of the other outdated concepts that keep us stuck.
Brian Bean
Brian Bean
May 30, 2012 07:23 PM
Ah, the multi-car collision, with casualties, of energy security, defense fuels risk mitigation, climate change, the protection of conventional energy interests and political spin-meistering. Take them in turn...

Fossil fuels are a wasting asset and we won't approach energy security until a majority of our energy requirements are met through renewable production.

Admiral Greenert correctly points out that the development of alternative fuels mitigates the risk of winding up in a situation where our warfighting capability is compromised by a critical conventional energy deficit. Having " 'off ramp' from conventional fuel sources..." just makes sense.

Consider how many gigawatts of alternative energy capacity could have been built out with the total societal monetary savings that would have resulted had we not fought the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Two years ago, this number was estimated at $2 - 3 trillion. Now consider that utility-scale solar, for example, can be built out at less than $3.00 per DC Watt.

Some are perfectly comfortable spending hundreds of billions of dollars on foreign wars (some "sold" to Americans by trumpeting fabrications and untruths) to protect and enhance conventional energy interests while slamming alternative energy technology initiatives as too expensive, or the fuels derived therefrom as not cost-effective. And - please - let's not factor in the cost in human lives and suffering.

Is there a good reason that Germany (you know, the country at a relatively high latitude that, relative to large parts of the U.S., boasts pretty lousy solar radiation values and so-so wind) has several times the installed alternative energy capacity of the U.S.? The answer is yes: we have no coherent and consistent national energy policy. Why, you might ask, do we not have a coherent and consistent national energy policy? Because of the effectiveness of individuals such as those quoted in the article that try to protect and, if it's not an oxymoron, enhance the conventional fossil fuel status quo.