U.S. military looks to cut its addiction to oil

U.S. Army soldiers stationed at Forward Operating Base Iskan climb onto a roof near a power plant on January 20, 2009 in Iskandariyah, Iraq.

Kai Ryssdal: Crude oil closed up almost $2 today, $87 and change at the close. The increase isn't much on the price-per-gallon scale that most of us use at the local gas station. But when you buy your petroleum products in bulk -- and I'm talking big, big bulk here -- literally every penny counts.

This summer, the Pentagon's rolling out some pretty ambitious goals to cut its fossil fuel use.
For the Navy, a decade from now, the target is that 50 percent of its energy will come from alternative fuels. Same for the Air Force -- 50 percent for biofuels.

Today from our Sustainability Desk, Marketplace's Scott Tong starts a three-part series on the American military and its addiction to oil starting way back when.


Scott Tong: Even 100 years ago, in 1911, soldiers and sailors were experiencing the joy of petroleum.

Oil historian Dan Yergin won a Pulitzer for his book, "The Prize."

Dan Yergin: It was on the very eve of the First World War when Winston Churchill -- head of the British Navy -- began the conversion of the Royal Navy from coal to oil, because you would gain greater speed, greater flexibility.

As war approached, a superior fuel was emerging. The world was going industrial, and so was combat.

Yergin: It very quickly became motorized, whether you were talking about planes, whether you were talking about this new innovation, which was the tank. All of it depended upon oil.

Dependence. Churchill warned oil came from faraway Persia, a new supply line to defend. Ultimately, Yergin says the German side ran short -- and lost.

Yergin: As one of the great British statesman said, the Allied Cause had floated to victory upon a wave of oil.

World War II, similar storyline.

Newsreel: We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin. The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by air...

One Japanese admiral said Pearl Harbor was part of a fuel strategy.

Yergin: To try and get the oil of what is now Indonesia, one of their major strategic objectives, this Japanese admiral said 'We have to do this, otherwise we won't have the fuel and our battleships will become like scarecrows.'

It was a risky addiction, still is today. But now the Pentagon says it's in rehab because of deadly supply lines in Iraq. Every day, the military hauls in 22 gallons of fuel per soldier -- taking on one casualty every 38 convoys. In Afghanistan, one man goes down every 24.

Video: I am down! I am taking fire. 10-4, come back.

You may have heard of Preston Wheeler. He drove a military contractor truck in Iraq, and filmed this famous ambush in 2005. Three American drivers died.

Preston Wheeler: They just killed him, oh Jesus. They just killed him, oh my god.

Fellow driver Robert Rowe drove 18 missions in Iraq. Every single time, he says he was attacked -- either by shooters or homemade bombs.

Robert Rowe: They would commandeer sheep and camels and attach explosives to these animals. And then herd the animals in front of our vehicles and blow 'em up.

Convoys stretch 2 or 3 miles long -- think 12 tanker and container trucks, plus twice as many military escort vehicles. Easy targets. Most of all, Rowe remembers when local boys would jump in front of his truck, and wave for him to stop.

Rowe: You stop, you die. And these boys wanted you to stop. That's when your morality comes into play. You don't want to hurt these kids. You're moving your hand, you know, saying "Get out of here." And you just close your eyes and then you hear a thump thump. You ran over 'em. Oh man.

By 2006, one U.S. commander in Iraq had enough. Lt. Gen. Richard Zilmer send Washington an urgent memo: We need alternative energy.

Richard Zilmer: Could you bring some of these off-the-shelf technologies -- in terms of solar, wind energy -- ways of trying to produce that energy without having to move these massive amounts of fuel.

The tipping point was not the cost of fuel -- not the environment -- but the human toll. Five years later, the DoD has new offices and plans to shrink its boot print: biofuels for fighters jets, hybrid-electric warships, solar panels for electricity.

Assistant Defense Secretary Sharon Burke says the military knows how to change when necessary.

Sharon Burke: It's essential that we promote innovation. If you look at the way that the military has incorporated nuclear power into some of our naval assets, we needed to be able to go long distances, and sometimes to be stealthy and not seen. So we innovated.

Some inventions have benefited the rest of us: GPS, Internet, Teflon. Some think military demand could turbo-charge the alternative fuel market. Could. So far the Pentagon has just an energy outline.

Dan Nolan: It was a very short document. Long on bumper stickers, short on substance.

Retired Col. Dan Nolan says great idea, but he sees no teeth in the plan, so far. And, he says, good luck changing military culture -- where energy and logistics guys tend to sit at the kid's table.

Nolan: In the Air Force, the really cool guys are all the fighter pilots. Those are the ones with the swagger. And if you fly a logistics aircraft you're called a trash hauler.

To go beyond bumper stickers, the Pentagon must go into the field and measure its fossil fuel use. And change the way it buys things. And hang out with the innovators. By all accounts it'll take decades.

Retired Commander Richard Zilmer.

Zilmer: Our classic fear is as soon as price drops at pump, people lose interest and it falls victim to the next crisis du jour.

For now, though, the military wears a fashionable shade of green -- as it seeks to undo generations of addiction to oil.

In Washington I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.


Ryssdal: There's more of our Military and Energy series and you can meet more of the characters we talked to -- visit our special series page.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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