U.S. Military's Green Energy Criticized By Congress

The White House and military brass are calling for the development of alternative energy. One goal is cutting dependence on foreign sources. Another is reducing the carbon footprint of the largest fossil fuel consumer in the world. But now some on Capitol Hill are blocking the effort to green the military. Audie Cornish talks with Juliette Kayyem of the Boston Globe about the fight.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. The U.S. military consumes hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil every single day. And we've reported previously on the Pentagon's effort to cut back and go green from running convoys on biofuels to sending Marines in the field with solar-powered battery packs. Defense officials say the green programs decrease their dependence on foreign oil and will save money in the long run.

Well, the Senate Armed Services Committee recently voted to put a stop to it, banning the military from spending money on alternative fuels when such fuels cost more than coal, natural gas or oil. Here to talk more about this battle is Juliette Kayyem. She's the foreign affairs columnist at the Boston Globe and on the faculty of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. And Juliette, to start, put this in context. How big a consumer of fossil fuels is the Defense Department, and how are the fuels and other green measures actually used day to day?

JULIETTE KAYYEM: Well, the Defense Department is the largest consumer of oil in the entire world, and so it has spent over a decade trying to figure out how it can wean itself off of oil for a variety of reasons, environmental being one of them, but also cost being a factor. So it's invested in a number of programs related to biofuel or solar. It has invested in what's called the Great Green Fleet with the Navy to try to have more independence from oil.

Those are ships that run on half biofuel and half diesel blends. And so it's been sort of pushing the envelope on all these, what we call, alternative energy sources, to essentially sort of drive the engine of the military.

CORNISH: Now, one of the program's biggest critics is Senator John McCain. He argues that the president is using the military to pursue a green agenda. And we should be clear that you served President Obama as assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Homeland Security, so you were with the administration.

But what's your response to these arguments?

KAYYEM: Well, McCain is technically, absolutely right that what is happening here is an effort to have the Pentagon, like most of the world, try to wean itself off of oil. This is - I mean, Wal-Mart is doing this, you know? Target, the big supply chain, private sector companies are doing it. This is not a surprise. And so McCain thinks he's sort of criticizing, you know, sort of some green agenda of the Obama administration.

But what's sort of lost in his criticism is that this is actually being driven by the military, not simply for sort of, you know, Birkenstock-wearing environmental reasons, but actually the oil price volatility is a huge cost driver for the Pentagon, so it's trying to decrease its budget. It's at the whim of oil prices.

CORNISH: But essentially, people are arguing that right now, in the budget situation, the country is in the days of austerity, that this is simply too expensive.

KAYYEM: Right. It is a compelling argument. It's one that motivated much of the Senate committee in terms of their vote. I'm just putting this in perspective that this sort of green or the clean initiatives for the Pentagon are about $170 million annual investment. But the more sort of essential long-term thinking aspect of this is is that the military is an unbelievable driver of innovation in American society.

Businesses and the private sector innovate because they need clients, and they need big clients, and that has often included the Pentagon.

CORNISH: At this point, is this a done deal, what lawmakers are doing?

KAYYEM: No. I think there'll be, you know, sort of a full Senate vote. Susan Collins did not vote in the committee hearing. There's pressure...

CORNISH: She's the Maine Senator.

KAYYEM: Yeah, the Senator from Maine. So her vote will - she has said that she will vote with - for the Pentagon. There is pressure on the Democrats who voted with the Republicans on this to switch their votes. Senator Scott Brown, who's here in Massachusetts, is in a tough fight with Elizabeth Warren and may reconsider his vote. So while the Pentagon was surprised by the committee and what they did, they're clearly going to make this a priority as the budget battles go forward.

CORNISH: Juliette Kayyem, thank you.

KAYYEM: Thank you so much.

CORNISH: Juliette Kayyem is at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and is a foreign affairs columnist for The Boston Globe.

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