Monday, October 19, 2009

u.s. military's battle to wean itself off oil

Grist | In the summer of 2006, Marine Corps Major General Richard Zilmer sent the Pentagon an unusual “Priority 1” request for emergency battlefield supplies. Stationed at a temporary base in Fallujah, Zilmer was commanding a force of 30,000 troops responsible for protecting Al Anbar, the vast territory in western Iraq bordering Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria. Heavily armed insurgents were hammering the region, and Al Qaeda was quickly gathering recruits. Zilmer’s beleaguered soldiers were running low on fuel for the diesel generators powering their barracks—fuel that cooled their tents in the 135-degree weather, refrigerated and cooked their food, and kept the communication lines open. The general, however, was wary of trucking in backup supplies during a time of so much turmoil. The U.S. fuel convoys that chugged along the back roads of Iraq every day—long lines of 18-wheelers hauling armored vats of gas—were among the insurgents’ prime targets.

Zilmer’s memo presented the Pentagon with an unprecedented request: “a self-sustainable energy solution,” including “solar panels and wind turbines.” This was the first time a frontline commander had formally requested renewable energy backup in battle. Without alternative power sources, the memo continued, U.S. forces “will remain unnecessarily exposed” and will “continue to accrue preventable ... serious and grave casualties.” Put in civilian-speak: Too many of Zilmer’s troops were dying in fuel convoys, and the relentless gasoline demands of the diesel generators were partly to blame.

Renewable energy was not an environmental consideration for Zilmer, it was a tactical necessity—a matter of life and death, of victory or defeat. The Pentagon is the largest consumer of petroleum in the United States. In recent years it has used between 130 million and 145 million barrels of oil annually—2 percent of America’s total petroleum demand. That translates to nearly 400,000 barrels per day, roughly the total daily energy consumption of the United Arab Emirates. Over the last century, no institution has done more to propel America’s rise to power than our military—or consumed more oil in the process. We have petroleum to thank for building the Department of Defense into an as-yet-unmatched fighting machine—but our troops are only as powerful as the flow of fuel that sustains them.

I was both baffled and hopeful when I read about Zilmer’s memo. Here was a no-nonsense Marine Corps general who has served more than 30 years in the U.S. military (not your typical tree-hugger) stationed in a country that’s virtually floating on an ocean of oil (Iraq has the world’s third-largest oil reserves, after Iran and Saudi Arabia) demanding clean energy solutions that only a few years earlier had been regarded as rinky-dink hippie technology suitable only for yurts and Earthships. Zilmer’s plea struck me as a clear harbinger of change in America’s attitudes about energy. If there was ever an opportunity to “man up” the effete image and role of solar panels, wind power, and other fossil-fuel alternatives, this was it. Just think of what the Pentagon could do to fast-track alternative-energy innovations going forward—after all, it was military R&D that led to the invention of jet airplanes, helicopters, radar, remote-control mechanisms, cell phones, global positioning systems (GPS), microchips, and the internet.

But for all the promise it augured, Zilmer’s memo also carried overtones of despair that spoke to the massive challenges that come with fueling the military—one more oil-dependent today than ever before in history.

How did the American military get so hooked on petroleum? How much does it really cost—in both blood and treasure—to fuel war? What would it take to transform the world’s biggest and strongest military into a petroleum-free enterprise? And how did this become the primary concern of a man leading 30,000 troops? To get answers, I went straight to the heart of the U.S. military establishment.