Oil, Biofuels and The Military's Great Green Gambit

Video by Mike DeVito and Ellie McCutcheon

The biofuel-laden USNS Henry J. Kaiser docks with the carrier USS Nimitz to transfer some of the over 200,000 gallons of biofuel used for the Green Fleet demonstration. (Courtesy Department of Defense)

Clout is an interesting thing. There's all types - social clout, cultural clout, personal clout with your friends and, perhaps the most important type in our society, economic clout. Economic clout can move markets, which is a lot like moving mountains - whole sectors of the economy shift based on what the actors with the most clout decide to do. In the global energy market, there are few who can match the clout of the US Military, the number one single purchaser of petroleum in the world.

A crewman transfers biofuel from the tanker USNS Henry J. Kaiser during the Green Fleet exercise. (Courtesy Department of Defense)

Petroleum is a tricky topic for the military - the prices for crude are rising and don't look likely to stop, but we need to power our ships, planes, trucks and tanks somehow. The current Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, sees this as an opportunity to do some greening in his department. Enter the Great Green Fleet, the modern adaptation of Teddy Roosevelt's Great White Fleet. The big difference? The White Fleet was meant to show the world a rising America's military might. The Green Fleet is meant to show the world (and, perhaps more importantly, America's own government) that we can be the world's largest military in an environmentally responsible manner. For the military to turn to green energy would be huge - with their clout, they can do things that an army of people with solar panels on their roofs can't ever hope to accomplish. But not everyone is onboard.

Secretary Mabus, getting ready to travel via helicopter to the Green Fleet. (Courtesy Department of Defense)

This past summer a US Pacific fleet accompanied by ships and planes from 22 nations was fitted to run on a biofuel mixture for a training exercise that would demonstrate the feasibility of the entire Green Fleet idea. The ships, the planes, the utility vehicles, even foreign birds that touched down for refueling got the biofuel mixture. This was a crowning moment for Mabus and other green advocates - seeming proof it could work. It wasn't quite as simple as putting the fleet out to sea and declaring victory, though. Roosevelt's fleet had to circumnavigate the globe. Mabus' has to navigate Congress. It's difficult to say which is harder, but right now Congress appears to be the winner.

A test sample of the biofuel used for the Green Fleet. (Courtesy Department of Defense)

Concerns over cost rapidly made headlines, and Congress turned to debate over cutting funding based on reports of soaring costs associated with the new fuel mixture. Mabus himself was personally attacked for the program. According to Mabus, Congress and the press just didn't understand the nature of the Green Fleet test. In reality, the Navy won't be switching over to biofuels entirely until it's cost effective, something Mabus made very clear in a scathing editorial. The Green Fleet isn't the only program the military has aimed at switching to green energy, but it is certainly the most visible. While Congressional support remains shaky, Mabus and the Navy are pushing ahead with a ton of smaller projects. What's the next step in the larger fleet situation, though? Wait for the oil price situation to come to a head? Hope that biofuel prices will come down? That doesn't exactly seem in the spirit of a Great Fleet - one finds it hard to picture Teddy Roosevelt sitting back and waiting for anything, and Mabus isn't known for patience either. The fact is, the military is a huge player in the global oil market. They've got the clout to make things happen if they want to, the power to accelerate the third generation of biofuels research, to bring the costs down through the hard work of invention. They're in a unique position to move our planet forward, and that's not an opportunity they should pass up. We put together a piece highlighting some of the key stats on this issue - take a look, check out the data yourself if you want more info, and then sit down and ask yourself: if you had the clout, what would you use it for? - Mike DeVito

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