John McCain’s Battle Against a Green Navy for Blue Oceans
Why does a seemingly arcane intra-bureaucratic spat over alternative fuels in the United States matter to a global audience?
July 9, 2012
Senator McCain, a man widely known for his temper and vitriol, framed his litany against the U.S. Navy in a Congressional hearing by essentially arguing that the pursuit of alternative fuels is unbecoming for the military. If at all, this is a matter best left to the U.S. Department of Energy, the Senator argued.
Why does what seems like a matter of arcane intra-bureaucratic trivia matter to a larger audience, and even a global one? In a nation that has a very hard time to come to grips with the basic realities of climate change and dealing with scarce resources, it is somewhat ironic that the U.S. military in general — and the U.S. Navy in particular — is a trailblazer for pursuing non-fossil fuel strategies.
This is politically significant. The navy has a more than solid standing in the American public — large swaths of which remain addicted to climate change denial, mainly for fear of what impact this will have on their lifestyles.
For the record, sustainable biofuels are actually better in many ways. New tests conducted at the Wright-Patterson Air Force base have proven that U.S. warplanes fly faster and carry more payload on missions when flying with synthetic fuels, including biofuels, compared to conventional military jet fuels made from petroleum.
This may be an inconvenient truth given. But it is a vital truth nevertheless. Indeed, the Wright-Patterson tests also revealed that renewable fuels lower engine temperatures by 135 degrees as a result of the absence of impurities found in conventional fossil fuels.
This is significant because an additional 25 degrees in temperature can shorten the life of the engine by half. This new data means that engine parts could last up to ten times longer if new high performance fuels are employed in place of petroleum.
These new fuels can be made from algae, trash and a host of other materials that can be made right here in the United States of America. This is costly at present, given the relative newness of the technology and the gradual process of bringing it up to full industrial scale. But they do not cost as much as the money the American people pay in taxes that go to subsidizing oil companies.
No doubt, there are plenty of alternative fuel opponents in the United States, including among the country’s public servants, such as Senator McCain. But neither they nor their Big Oil overlords can dispute this fact: The status quo fuel — oil — has inflicted a great deal in terms of blood and treasure onto the American Armed Forces in combat and onto the American people in terms of budgetary costs.
Never mind that oil goes to the very heart of why we Americans are at war in the Middle East, why we condone irregular warfare and why we are short of public funds to invest in America.
Given all that, it should be a no-brainer, and a vital tool of reinsurance if nothing else, that we make a serious down payment on alternative fuels, as the U.S. Navy is doing. These fuels not only make us stronger and more resilient (something that ought to be very much a concern of a former war fighter such as Senator McCain). In the long run, these fuels also are a better buy, save money, machinery and human lives.
And has John McCain, in his spurious fight against new forms of energy, already forgotten that it was his fellow Republicans George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld who initiated the concepts of energy security and independence? Has he forgotten that it was “W” who was the first president since Carter to put solar panels on the White House and declare to the world that “America has a problem. It is addicted to oil”?
And can the Senator deny that the invasion of Iraq (as well as into Afghanistan) clearly exposed that the U.S. military’s energy dependence was a giant liability? After all, this irregular warfare resulted in fuel convoys regularly getting blown up. With the bills piling up for added support and troop replacements (the majority of American casualties are from convoy attacks), it was commanders on the frontlines of the battle who asked their superiors to help free troops from “the tether of fuel”.
As casualties mounted, something to which Senator McCain ought to be most sensitive, given his own experiences in Vietnam, those within the U.S. Armed Forces mounted an organized effort to do what they could. Diesel-powered generators, deafening as they were and hard to be stocked with fuel, could be supplemented with silent solar powered batteries and gear.
Energy efficiency could be utilized to bring down the overall demands and make sustainability more realizable. The benefits were immediately obvious — increased operational independence and being a less obvious target to the enemy.
From the vantage point of McCain and his fellow conservatives, this issue should be all about increasing the ability of U.S. war fighters. This is part of what the Defense Department refers to when evaluating within the Key Performance Parameters (KPPs).
Never mind the money of what is spent on traditional fuels: In 2006, the cost of delivering a gallon of fuel via an airborne tanker, including a small proportion of the cost of the aircraft, was estimated at about $42 per gallon.
In 2012, total cost to deliver that same gallon of fuel exceeds $50 per gallon. This is what is referred to by the Department of Defense (DOD) as the Fully Burdened Cost of Fuel (FBCF). This accounts for all costs associated with purchasing and transporting fuel to a particular location overseas.
Those numbers aside, even from a purely logistical perspective, there is no clearer definition of what constitutes unsustainability than hauling liquid fuels to the four corners of the globe. There are even documented examples of pilots having to fly to another base to refuel because fuel availability at their home base was restricted. One can only imagine the final financial tally for a gallon of fuel in that very real-life scenario.
But even the fully burdened cost of fuel does not take into account the total impact on American lives lost. According to a recent GAO report, 44 trucks and 220,000 gallons of fuel were lost due to attacks or other events while delivering fuel to Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan in June 2008 alone.
The highest casualty rate in a combat zone, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, is attributable to moving fuel. Considering the statistical value of a human life is about $7 million, transporting fuel in a combat zone becomes a cost-prohibitive practice.
Let us now take on the broader question: Why is the U.S. military the focal point for U.S. energy policy? On the positive side, history tells us that advances in energy technology have consistently been moved and initiated by armies and navies in the interests of victory.
On the negative side, members of the U.S. military, as they walk the front lines of Middle Eastern oil pipelines, do wonder whether their higher calling — defending their home country — hasn’t been hijacked for the interests of large corporations, at the expense of the American people and foreign lands.
It is bewildering to see how the Republicans are hard-selling against alternative fuels — even in the face of their own policy successes. The solar farm at Nellis Air Force Base was Republican-initiated and a groundbreaking venture, providing 14 megawatts of power and an example for other areas to follow.
As Admiral Mike Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “Saving energy saves lives.” Literally. It is a metric that the U.S. Department of Defense is tracking, with good reason.
Reducing the number of fuel and water convoys reduces the number of lives lost to roadside bombs, snipers and accidents while transporting these liquids from one side of the sand pit to the other.
Historically, advances that change societies have for centuries been pushed ahead by the power of militaries — with the Navy often serving as the tip of the spear. Sure, militaries also introduced a lot of negative “change,” given the weapons systems they chose to deploy. But now that we are at the edge of positive change, we ought not constrain it.
The broader point is this: We don’t have time to be partisan about energy and the environment. Common sense is what used to define us as Americans — before we got swept away into the desert sands of an empire-seeking machinery. And nobody is picking winners, either. In the race for alternative fuels, we are not presented with a choice between one fuel and another.
There are many sides, many projects, many options, many of which are ready to be implemented. To get to a brighter future, with less energy insecurity or a less precarious form of (presumed) energy security, Americans — beginning with John McCain, who always likes to present himself as a patriot second to none — ought to put partisan rancor aside.
In the long run, alternative fuels are a better buy. They save money, machinery and human lives.
There is no clearer definition of what constitutes unsustainability than hauling liquid fuels to the four corners of the globe.
The highest casualty rate in a combat zone, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, is attributable to moving fuel.
Reducing the number of fuel and water convoys reduces the number of lives lost to roadside bombs, snipers and accidents.
Advances that change societies have for centuries been pushed ahead by the power of militaries — with the Navy often serving as the tip of the spear.