The Navy Goes Green: Mother Jones And The Climate Desk Highlight A Major Energy Transformation In Our Military

By Chris Mooney and Julia Whitty

The latest cover story of Mother Jones magazine — and, relatedly, the latest Climate Desk Live briefing, occurring this Wednesday in D.C. — are focused on one of the “good news” energy stories that we don’t hear often enough: How the U.S. military in general, and particularly the Navy, are taking the energy challenge head-on for good, strategic reasons.

The piece begins, memorably enough, with environmental correspondent Julia Whitty’s gut-tightening high speed landing on-board the USS Nimitz. A 1,092 foot aircraft carrier, the Nimitz was involved last summer in the “Great Green Fleet” demonstration, in which five ships and 71 aircraft were operated using biofuel blends or nuclear power. As Whitty reports, the Defense Department uses over 12 million gallons of oil daily in its operations. About a third of that use is attributable to the Navy. That makes thinking about the global energy future — and where affordable fuel is going to come from in the future — a national security necessity.

As Navy Secretary David Mabus, a biofuels champion, has put it, “Too many of our platforms and too many of our systems are gas hogs.” In particular, the lesson of past oil price spikes has been a telling one — Navy fuel costs can rise by dollar amounts in the billions because of market fluctuations. That’s a reality impossible for strategic planners to ignore. So while Washington fights endlessly over climate and energy, the Navy just starts solving problems.

Whitty’s piece goes into great depth about how the Navy has, historically, been an energy and navigational technology innovator. This is not the first time: the Great Green Fleet descends from Teddy Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet,” which back in 1907 sailed around the world in newfangled ships made of steel and powered by coal. Before that, there were those who resisted (yes) switching from sails to steam engines. The Navy was on the right side of that fight, too.

The most important point of Whitty’s article is that when the Navy moves — and it is moving — the rest of the world follows. It is such a massive institution — the Great Green Fleet exercise required a government purchase of 900,000 gallons of 50-50 biofuel blend — that when it demands innovations, the civilian world and industry quickly come to heel, asking for their orders.

On Wednesday in D.C., the Climate Desk Live will focus on Whitty’s article and the significance of the Navy’s transformation, featuring the author herself and three additional speakers: Dr. David Titley, the retired naval officer who led the Navy’s Task Force on Climate Change, Capt. James Goudreau, director of the Navy’s Energy Coordination Office, and Dr. D. James Baker, who is the former administrator of NOAA, the current director of the Global Carbon Measurement Program of the William J. Clinton Foundation, and the co-author of a new report on the relationship between weather extremes and national security. You can learn more about the event at these links — and watch a live stream if you can’t attend in person.

Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist at Mother Jones. Julia Whitty is an award-winning author and a former documentary filmmaker.


14 Responses to The Navy Goes Green: Mother Jones And The Climate Desk Highlight A Major Energy Transformation In Our Military

  1. Alex T says:

    It’s my understanding that current biofuels are a terrible idea. They offer relatively little extra energy on top of their energy inputs, they require huge amounts of land and are displacing food crops.

    It’s nice to see that the military is able to start large projects but I’m hugely disappointed that this article is reprinted without a note of scepticism or caution.

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    Sorry, we can’t give the Navy any credit here. Biofuels are worse than gasoline when it comes to GHG emissions:

    The problem with all branches of our military is that they are burning way too much fuel bombing and interfering with countries in oil producing regions. This policy exists because of inertia and the need to feed military contractors, and produces no positive result. If Obama closed half of our 900 overseas bases tomorrow, the effect on our national security would be zero.

    It won’t happen for the same reason politicians oppose a carbon tax: they are in thrall to sunset industries, the ones that produce pollution, greenhouse gases, and deadly weapons.

  3. Camburn says:

    A reduction of 50% in consumption of fuel by the Military would be a welcome relief for the world.

  4. Aldous says:

    A reduction of 50% of the military in general would be a welcome relief for the world, but I digress.

  5. Endofmore says:

    So let’s get this straight, we convert food into oil, pour it into navy fuel tanks, so they use it to protect our supplies of real oil?
    Or am I missing something here?
    Ive tried banging my head on the keyboard, but all Ive got is YTREWQ imprinted on my forehead.
    Of course, this has been done before,
    When the oil finally runs out we can go back to converting food directly into energy by feeding galley slaves.
    Any bets on the first biofuel war?

  6. Lorna Paisley says:

    You are right on Aldous

  7. Billy Snapp says:

    Neither this or the original article mention the ridiculous response from Congress (specifically, the House) to last year’s Green Fleet exercise, and their attempt to hobble Naval biofuel research afterwards.

  8. Billy Snapp says:

    Well, the key word in your comment is ‘current.’ The technology is progressing, and I don’t think that this work should end just because biofuels aren’t substantially better than oil-derived fuels. Anyway, the Green Fleet is really just there to sell the idea – a proof of concept sort of thing. This is not a final product.

  9. Cliff Claven says:

    The Navy paid $26.75 a gallon for the 450,000 gallons of biofuel for this stunt. This is not corn ethanol or biodiesel, but hydrotreated fuel and it takes more fossil fuel energy to make this exquisitely expensive concoction from algae and chicken fat than the resulting fuel contains. Making biofuel is the most wasteful use of fossil fuel yet devised. We use six times more fossil fuel turning natural gas and crude oil into ammonia fertilizer and pesticides and ultimately into corn ethanol, than if we just used that natural gas and petroleum to make gasoline. There is no energy security, no GHG reductions, and no sanity in this behavior.

  10. Joe Romm says:

    No, food-based biofuels aren’t where this is headed.

  11. Alex T says:

    I don’t see the vision here.

    It’s all done to demonstrate the “value” of corn ethanol which isn’t a vision of the future, it’s a destructive current practice.

  12. Solar Jim says:

    Perhaps the Navy should begin researching the construction of the ultimate clean energy ship – the great sailing ship (with on-board hybrid bio-diesel propulsion), at least insofar as application for support or non-combat operations.

  13. Paul Klinkman says:

    In December of 1944 the Nazis launched the Battle of the Bulge. It failed in part because the Germans didn’t have the gasoline.

    I’m not of a military bent at all, but I know that military people hate it when someone else proves that their own plan would lose. It makes them look stupid and doesn’t get them promoted.

    Military people know that oil comes primarily from the Mideast, and if there’s a war then that oil isn’t available. So, somebody thought of biofuel. Now they have to realize that biofuel takes oil.

  14. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Perhaps the USA, with its twelve carrier battle groups (the rest of the planet have none comparable) might start saving money by mothballing six or nine. After all, the USA faces no threats, is safe in its continent, between the oceans and merely outspends the rest of the world by a considerable degree in order to bully the rest of humanity into following its diktat. The USA would greatly increase its prestige with the ‘real international community’ if it downsized its military by at least 50% and invested the money saved in ecological repair of the planet.