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The Great Green Fleet

It’s always weird to hear conservatives doubt the idea of peak oil and then you have the U.S. Navy doing this

The Great Green Fleet is debuting at the 2012 RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific) exercise, the largest ever international maritime war games, engaging 40 surface ships, six submarines, more than 200 aircraft, and 25,000 personnel from 22 nations. For the first time Russian ships are playing alongside US ships, and naval personnel from India are attending. Many fleets here are sharpening their focus on alternative fuels and working to assure the formulations are codeveloped with their allies. “We’ve had dialogue with the Australians, the French, the British, other European nations, and many others in the Pacific,” and they all want to take “the petroleum off-ramp,” Cullom tells me. “We don’t want to run out of fuel.”

You can’t live off the land at sea, which is why the Navy has always looked far into the future to fuel its supply lines; the job description of admirals requires them to assess risk and solve intractable problems that stymie the rest of us. Peak oil, foreign oil, greenhouse emissions, climate change? Just another bunch of enemies. So when the Department of Defense set a goal to meet 25 percent of its energy needs with renewables by 2025, the Navy found itself fighting on familiar ground. Four times in history it has overhauled old transportation paradigms—from sail to coal to gasoline to diesel to nuclear—carrying commercial shipping with it in the process. “We are a better Navy and a better Marine Corps for innovation,” Mabus says. “We have led the world in the adoption of new energy strategies in the past. This is our legacy.”

It goes beyond supply lines. Rising sea levels lapping at naval bases? A melting and increasingly militarized Arctic? The Navy is tackling problems that freeze Congress solid. What it learns, what it implements, and how it adapts and innovates will drive market changes that could alter the course of the world.

But not without a fight. Six weeks before RIMPAC 2012, Republicans and some coal- and gas-state Democrats tried to scuttle Mabus’ Green Fleet by barring the Pentagon from buying alternative fuels that cost more per gallon than petroleum-based fuels—the biofuel blend cost more than $15 a gallon—unless the more expensive alternative fuels come from other fossil fuels, like liquefied coal. This tricky logic made sense to Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.)—”[The Pentagon] should not be wasting time perpetrating President Obama’s global warming fantasies or his ongoing war on affordable energy”—even though seven years earlier Inhofe helped secure a $10 million taxpayer fund to test renewable military fuels, more than half of which went to a company in his home state. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) agreed, calling the purchase of biofuels “a terrible misplacement of priorities” and adding, “I don’t believe it’s the job of the Navy to be involved in building…new technologies.” Mabus, who’d already bought the biofuels for the RIMPAC demo, fired back: “If we didn’t pay a little bit more for new technologies, the Navy would never have bought a nuclear submarine, which still costs four to five times more than a conventional submarine.”

A good look at the politics behind change in any institution, even one that needs to be as cutting edge as the U.S. Navy.

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