The Green Monster

Their agenda: spend millions on expensive alternative biofuels. Invest even more in undeveloped “green” technology. Prepare for the melting of the polar ice caps brought on by climate change.

Some aggressive and well-funded environmentalist group? Nope.

It’s the U.S. military.

A few days ago, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta added fuel to the fire of an emerging controversy—just now capturing the attention of some members of Congress—by sharing his plans for the future of the military with a group of rapt environmentalists at an Environmental Defense Fund gala in his honor in Washington, D.C.

“Our mission at the Department is to secure this nation against threats to our homeland and to our people,” he said. “In the 21st century, the reality is that there are environmental threats which constitute threats to our national security. For example, the area of climate change has a dramatic impact on national security: rising sea levels, to severe droughts, to the melting of the polar caps, to more frequent and devastating natural disasters all raise demand for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.”

Despite pending defense cuts that have had a dismayed Panetta pounding lecterns across the country, the Defense Secretary said DoD would be committing $2 billion in the next fiscal year alone to energy-efficient equipment and efficiency programs, and research and development for green technology.

Not so fast, Secretary Panetta.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a staunchly pro-military member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, takes the opposite view. He argues that’s money that could be used to manufacture or update a new fleet of aircraft. He now has defense leaders squarely in his crosshairs, determined to hold them to account for espousing debunked philosophies on climate change and promoting costly green initiatives while procurement needs go unmet.

Following Panetta’s speech, Inhofe fired out a statement promising to provide congressional oversight and build awareness about the Defense Department’s “radical agenda.”

Inhofe deconstructs Panetta

Inhofe sat down with Human Events in his office last week and countered one by one each of Panetta’s climate change claims, reading from a ring-bound folder of research drawn from academic journals: there has been no statistically significant acceleration in sea level rise over the past century. The oft-cited severity of the 2011 drought, which covered 25 percent of the country, was nothing compared to one in 1984, which affected 80 percent of the land mass. Hurricanes, a common natural disaster, have been on the decline since the U.S. started keeping records of them in the 19th century.

Everything Panetta said, Inhofe concluded, was a talking point cribbed from Al Gore’s 2006 global warming opus “An Inconvenient Truth,” and each, he said, has been refuted.

Inhofe had a head start on the research. The minority leader of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, he is also the author of The Greatest Hoax, a refutation of climate change theory published earlier this year.

The senator doesn’t expect Panetta to be as well-versed on climate change as he is, saying Panetta’s role is to lead the troops, not create environmental policy. Nor does Inhofe attribute all the far-left language and green initiatives to the defense secretary, who Inhofe said knows better than to spearhead such programs.

“I’ve always liked Panetta; I served with him in the House and he’s always been one who has been very straightforward, very honest,” Inhofe said. “However, he has a commander in chief named Obama, so he has to say what Obama tells him to say.”

Panetta has publicly and strongly defended the climate change and green energy talking points to critics, however, such as when he responded in March to criticism from Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) at a House Armed Services Committee that Conaway’s premise for disagreement was “absolutely wrong” and that embracing the green agenda would make for a better military.

The “Green Fleet” ready to launch

While having America’s fighting forces plan for hypothetical climate change might be regarded as silly, DoD’s aggressive pursuit of biofuels as an alternative to traditional fossil fuels is a more immediate and potentially more damaging proposition.

At the same gala featuring Panetta, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told guests about plans to launch “Great Green Fleet” featuring ships and aircraft operating on a blend of traditional and biofuels. At up to $26 per gallon, biofuels can cost more than six times as much as traditional fuel sources at $3 or $4 per gallon, putting them out of the price range of many private industry maritime consumers with similar needs.

Last December, in what was the largest government biofuel purchase in history, the Defense Logistics Agency procured 450,000 gallons of an advanced variety of the alternative fuel, made from both non-food waste and algae, for the relative bargain price of $12 million. Other test fuels have used the oil of the camelina mustard seed. According to a plan first made public by Mabus in 2009, the Navy expects to launch the fleet this summer for its exercises on the Pacific Rim—powered by the $12 million biofuels purchase—and to deploy it by 2016.

Mabus listed his reasons for promoting the infant biofuel technology for his audience: the U.S. was too dependent on volatile areas of the world for fossil fuels, and unexpected fuel price fluctuation, as during the Libya conflict, could and did cost the DoD billions of dollars. Troops were endangered transporting traditional fuel to the battlefield. And like American steel in the 1880s, biofuel was a new technology waiting for an investor to come and purchase it at above-market prices, so eventually it could reduce its costs and become competitive.

“That’s what we can do with energy,” Mabus said. “We can break the market.”

The environmentalists applauded.

Military inappropriate for green testing

While keeping troops safe and lowering long-run costs are valuable goals for the Defense Department, biofuels won’t accomplish either, said Dr. David Kreutzer, a Research Fellow in Energy Economics and Climate Change for the Heritage Foundation.

In the first case, he said, convoys would still have to transport fuel, whether “green” or petroleum, over ground to reach deployed forward operating bases. And since biofuels have a lower energy density, transport convoys would actually have to be larger to carry the supply, creating a broader target for the enemy.

Second, Kreutzer said, if the technology behind alternative fuel sources was truly propitious, endorsement by the military should not be necessary to ensure its survival. “The fact that you have to get the Department of Defense to fund this to me is a sign that (biofuels are) not all that promising,” he said.

Moreover, Kreutzer said, there were plenty of cheaper alternatives closer at hand. “We could drill a couple of wells in the Gulf of Mexico and get way more than we could for their biofuel initiatives,” he said.

Kenneth P. Green, an energy and environment expert with the American Enterprise Institute, said the idea of energy security and independence was equally suspect. “The price shock issue is real,” he said. “But trying to decouple from the world energy economy isn’t going to fix that.” Biofuels, subject to the laws of supply and demand, would increase in cost during a fuel price spike—and if kept off the world market, the cost of keeping them off would be high.

“It’s more a matter of energies-phobia,” Green said. “The idea of survival as sort of independence in everything is the sort of reflexive mindset. We don’t think about this with regard to smartphones, knapsacks… with almost everything, we understand that it’s better with world trade.”

And, Green said, the military had no business choosing the winners in fuel technology, especially with untapped options such as shale gas close at hand.

“You don’t economize on keeping your soldiers alive, but where possible, don’t they have an obligation to conserve costs with the public’s dollar?” Green said. “Find the cheapest fuel, not the most politically correct fuel.”

Biofuels could hurt combat readiness

A study released in late March by the Bipartisan Policy Center on energy innovation within the Department of Defense found that while the military had some success in piloting new efficient technologies that would keep troops safer, its size and capacity meant it was ill-equipped to become a pioneer for green energy.

“DoD’s ability to house supply and demand under one roof, and to produce lasting improvements in complex systems over time, driven in part by large, sustained procurement programs, is nearly unique—and unlikely to be widely reproduced in the energy and climate context,” a summary read. “There are significant constraints upon what DoD is likely to do directly in this area; the department is unlikely to become an all-purpose engine of energy innovation.”

The study concluded the military would do best if pragmatism, not politics, drives energy and environmental decisions.

“We believe that DoD’s scope in this area will be significantly constrained to issues and opportunities… that will also reliably assist DoD’s ability to fulfill its core mission,” one of the study’s authors, Samuel Thernstrom of the Clean Air Task Force, told Human Events. “Where those activities do not fall squarely within DoD’s core mission, it seems less likely that those efforts will be successful.”

Sen. Inhofe’s game plan

On Capitol Hill, Inhofe said he was the loudest voice protesting wasteful defense energy policies, but he said there were others who agreed, including Democrats who worried that the issue would affect their re-election races.

While Inhofe’s options in terms of direct political action are limited, he said, because the Republicans lack a majority in the Senate, he plans to maintain a watchdog role to keep public attention on the issue.

Later this month, he will deliver an extended address on the Senate floor denouncing the military’s far-left energy policies. And Inhofe looks forward to seeing how this year’s presidential election may provide a way to walk back the liberal Defense energy policies of the last term. Panetta is a great Secretary of Defense, Inhofe said; he would just be a better one serving under someone else.