There has been much talk of late of the military’s efforts to “go green.” This characterization is accurate in a sense, but misleading if interpreted too broadly. The military recognizes that its dependence on massive quantities of fossil fuels imposes substantial risks, and to reduce these risks it must reduce its energy requirements. Although the military cites dependence on foreign oil and the dangers posed by continued climate change as a component of these risks, the more important issue is the logistics and costs involved in delivering fuel to distant operational centers around the world. The most obvious example of this danger is the staggering number of casualties suffered by servicemen and women during fuel shipments.

In response, the military has not only set impressive goals, but has already made significant headway in reducing its energy consumption. The Environmental and Energy Study Institute military greening Fact Sheet provides details for the Navy’s energy efficiency programs. Some of their goals include sailing the “Great Green Fleet,” a Green Strike Group run on biofuels and nuclear power by 2016; reducing non-tactical petroleum use in the commercial fleet by 50 percent by 2015; and deriving 50 percent of total energy consumption from alternative fuel sources by 2020. The fact sheet also reports that “[t]he Navy launched its first hybrid electric‐drive surface combatant, the USS Makin Island, in 2006; estimated cost savings will be $248 million over its service life.”

Despite the benefits of these clean energy programs, the House voted on July 7 to strike section 526 of a 2007 law aimed at promoting energy independence. This section prohibits federal agencies from purchasing fuels with higher lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than conventional petroleum fuels. Those who wish to repeal this section argue that it is an unnecessary constraint on operational flexibility and will damage the liquid coal industry. Those who hope to maintain the provision argue that it can serve as a tool for solidifying the military’s commitment to clean energy, and in the long run will lead to a broader spectrum of operational possibilities.

The climate activist’s view

From a green economy perspective, this legislation could not be more important. The military’s huge demand for energy translates into enormous market pull. By creating a market for biofuels and green technology, the military can spur further research and drive down the price of clean energy to levels that would be competitive with traditional energy sources. According to analysis presented at a congressional briefing on the Defense Department’s Deployment of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, section 526 sends positive signals to the green energy sector by reassuring clean energy producers that their investments will be met with steady demand from the DoD. Such stability is critical for any burgeoning industry.

Indeed, Pew Charitable Trust cites the lack of a coherent, stable clean energy policy framework as the main cause of the United States’s falling share of global clean investment. Maintaining clean energy supportive policies in the military could give green industries the toehold they need to become competitive in the U.S. market.

The military and the green economy

If the military does maintain a strong commitment to clean energy, it can play a unique role in the development of viable biofuels and other reduced carbon emissions sources. The Center for American Progress argues, “The military can test various advanced biofuels to determine the most effective blend before they are commercialized. And it can do this more easily than private businesses because it can afford to experiment without concern about a short-term profit.” With increased, stable demand, prices will drop and the industry will expand.

Many biofuels have only dubious credentials as friends of the environment. Thankfully, the Navy reports that it will not use corn as a fuel source, nor any other fuel that would diminish the food supply. The Navy is in fact mandated to only use fuels with lifecycle costs and emissions that are lower than traditional fossil fuels.

Military investment could also help develop green technologies. Many commentators point to GPS as an example of a technology initially developed for the military that gained a second life in civilian applications. Thomas Hicks, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy, recently argued that we are unlikely to anticipate the most important technological transfers, but did speculate that censors capable of detecting heat loss could be a likely candidate for one of these transformative cross-over technologies. He noted that military investment in this technology has dropped the cost of development substantially and has made it more likely that civilian applications could become economically viable.

The military: A PR agent for green?

There is another potential spillover effect that a successful military greening project could offer. The military is a nationally recognized organization with great prestige, giving its energy efficiency initiative the potential to legitimize going green and even to broaden recognition of the dangers of climate change. At a recent congressional briefing on the Defense Department’s Deployment of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Richard Kidd, deputy assistant secretary of the Army, Energy and Sustainability, argued that the military has historically led the nation toward broader acceptance of some of its most controversial social issues. Given their high level of respectability, veterans who understand the benefits of energy efficiency could change minds in their own communities and places of work. Kidd stated “When the army goes green, the nation will.” For an example of veteran climate activism already under way, take a look at Operation Free, a collection of veterans for sensible energy use. Merely having military planners discussing climate change as a legitimate concern within policy discussion certainly puts climate skeptics on shakier ground.

The military’s green programs could also offer proof that green initiatives don’t hurt the economy. When the military’s green programs achieve real successes in the form of jobs created, costs reduced, and lives saved, the military will have definitively demonstrated that a viable economy is not the necessary casualty of a strong policy on climate preparedness.

Maintaining the commitment

While cited frequently in DoD policy pieces, climate change and energy dependence remain secondary concerns in their strategic analysis. Military planners deal with hard choices, and will always be most concerned with the immediate, measurable consequences of their policies. While high capacity batteries and portable solar panels achieve obvious results, the cost of climate change and oil dependence cannot be easily measured, and are thus more difficult to fit neatly into strategic calculations.

So long as the military’s short-term considerations — cutting costs and increasing capabilities — translate into investments in emission reducing projects, climate activists will have something resembling an ally in the DoD. If the military’s strategic calculus changes due to a realignment of short-term considerations, we can expect to see any convergence of interests dissolve rapidly.

Some military planners have already parted ways with the logic of clean energy. Gen. Philip Breedlove, vice chief of staff of the Air Force, reports that the Air Force has nearly completed certifying its fleet to use carbon-intensive coal-to-liquid fuels. The use of these fuels is exactly what the section 526 legislation was designed to prevent. With the legislation in place, the Air Force is still unable to purchase coal-to-liquid fuels. That the Air Force moved forward with the certification process despite the legislation demonstrates that it is ready and willing to begin using these fuels as soon as legal barriers are removed.

Because military planners differ in their assessments of strategic realities, strong legislation remains necessary to maintain the military’s commitment to clean energy and energy reducing policies. The success or failure of those who wish to repeal section 526 will determine whether or not the many benefits of military greening will ever be wholly realized.

Keith Menconi is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

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