By Ellen Anderson
Minnesota Department of Agriculture
After celebrating our nation’s independence this steamy Fourth of July, we should reconsider whether we are achieving energy independence. Rolf Westgard’s article about the “Great Green Fleet” suggests we have no worries about energy now that the U.S. is producing more oil, and therefore the Department of Defense should stop developing alternative energy sources. I believe he is dead wrong and that energy independence is more important than ever, especially for Minnesota.
It’s true that since President Obama took office, we import less than 50 percent of the oil we consume in the U.S. — but we still import over 11 million barrels per day. We are also paying more at the pump because oil prices are based on world factors like instability along the global supply chain and growing demand from countries like India, China, and Brazil, which is likely to drive prices higher over the long term.
Long term price volatility and price spikes for oil are two reasons the United States Department of Defense (DOD) is embarking on a comprehensive, long-term strategic plan to reduce the military’s consumption of energy, decrease its reliance on foreign sources of oil, and significantly increase its use of alternative energy. Its “Operational Energy Strategy” points out that energy costs can “too often be measured in lives lost guarding and moving fuel across the battlefield. As long as U.S. forces rely on large volumes of energy, particularly petroleum-based fuels, the vulnerability and volatility of supplies will continue to raise risks and costs for the armed forces.”
In Afghanistan, fuel and other supplies are hauled across difficult terrain and dangerous roads. The deadly consequence is one casualty for every 24 ground resupply convoys. Between 70 to 80 percent of the resupply weight for those logistical convoys is composed of fuel and water. The Army’s “operational energy logistical tail” has become a matter of life and death.
Because transporting electric power, fuel, and water is such a risky business, the military is developing, piloting, testing and implementing new and emerging solutions that are reducing demands for electric power, fuel and water. Some troops carry “solar blankets” to charge their radio batteries on longer missions. Some blend used generator oil and used canola oil from dining facilities to run generators, reducing the amount of fuel transported and saving 65,000 gallons of JP8 fuel last year. Marine Sergeant David Doty says solar equipment cut their generators’ fuel use from more than 20 to 2.5 gallons a day. “By saving fuel for generators, it has cut back on the number of convoys, meaning fewer opportunities for one of our vehicles to hit an IED.” Fewer convoys makes the forces safer: “The enemy will exploit every soft target we have…. A refueling vehicle becomes a screaming [easy] target.”
The DOD’s plan to be less vulnerable to energy price and supply volatility and disruption includes the Great Green Fleet. As one of the single largest consumers of energy in the world, the DOD will help drive the development of advanced cellulosic biofuels that have lower impacts on water, energy use, and food crops than conventional ethanol. Because of economies of scale, this will help bring down prices and create market opportunities for Minnesota producers.
Over time, oil prices are sure to rise, as supplies grow scarcer, as billions of people in China, India, and other growing economies aim for a higher standard of living, and as our search for oil requires drilling in more environmentally sensitive and inaccessible locations. It’s shortsighted to look only at today’s market conditions and declare “problem solved.”
The U.S. is painfully lacking in long range thinking on energy matters. We should applaud military leaders for their strategic, long term plan to achieve energy security and energy independence.
Unlike the country as a whole, Minnesota still imports most of its fuel sources. We send some $20 billion a year of our hard earned money out of our state every year for energy. Energy independence for Minnesota means keeping that money recirculating in our local economy, creating jobs, and driving development of our own homegrown renewable energy resources. The benefits to cleaner air and water and fewer climate extremes would also be a gift to future generations. It’s time for our own Operational Energy Strategy.
Ellen Anderson is the senior advisor to the governor on Energy & Environment — Minnesota Department of Agriculture.