The Pentagon’s green revolution

In recent years, the gas-guzzling Pentagon has launched a major effort to invest in developing green technology — or at least give the appearance of doing so — with, at best, mixed results. As defense-tech writer Noah Shachtman has pointed out, the military is “now focusing on algal feedstock for biofuel and next-generation solar panels. One of the world’s largest solar-power projects is planned for the Army’s main training center, at Fort Irwin, Calif. Billions in stimulus money were spent to green military facilities.”

But efforts in the Bush years to develop “green” vehicles generally stalled, flopped, or barely got rolling. Under the Obama administration, more ambitious goals have been set, but tangible results are still lacking. Last year, the military’s contracts for renewable fuels derived from algae, according to DESC, added up to less than 22,000 gallons.

One major reason for this, Shachtman writes, is that “the current systems for delivering power and fuel to war zones are reliable, if inefficient and unsustainable. Military leaders,” he adds “don’t want to jeopardize operations in Afghanistan or Iraq for something perceived as experimental or risky.” As a result, whatever solar panels it has installed or renewable jet fuel it has purchased, the Pentagon remains dependent on buying huge amounts of petroleum products from BP and other large energy corporations, and when it comes to war-making, any substantive reduction in oil dependence appears far off indeed.

Nonetheless, the Department of Defense has devoted significant resources to publicizing its green efforts. The commander-in-chief has even lent a hand. On March, 31, President Obama stood in front of a “green” F-18 Hornet fighter designed to run partly on bio-fuels and announced to the nation that he was proposing to open large new areas off the Atlantic coastline, the eastern Gulf of Mexico, and the north coast of Alaska to oil and natural gas drilling. Less than a month later, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.

In the weeks since, despite Obama’s tough talk, his reported “anger and frustration,” and his efforts to identify the proper “ass to kick,” as well as the Pentagon’s much-touted green-energy initiative, the U.S. military continues, as Shachtman points out, to burn “22 gallons of diesel [fuel] per soldier per day in Afghanistan, at a cost of more than $100,000 a person annually.”

In other words, as a direct result of war-making in distant lands, taxpayer dollars, including those from Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, will continue to flow into BP coffers, even as more wildlife dies, more beaches are fouled, and more livelihoods are lost in the Gulf of Mexico.

Tough talk and no action

In a June, 5 email message to supporters, paid for by Organizing for America, a project of the Democratic National Committee, President Obama again acknowledged the severity of the BP disaster and validated the anger it has unleashed. “This spill,” he declared, “has not just damaged livelihoods. It has upended whole communities. And the fury people feel is not just about the money they have lost. It is about the wrenching recognition that this time their lives may never be the same.” 

“We have,” he continued, ” … ordered BP to pay economic injury claims, and this week, the federal government sent BP a preliminary bill for $69 million to pay back American taxpayers for some of the costs of the response so far.” 

Two days later, Tyson Slocum, the director of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen’s energy program, sent a letter to Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asking them to go further. He urged them to suspend, and ultimately debar, BP and its subsidiaries from serving as defense contractors, to terminate six current federal contracts with the company, and prohibit BP and its subsidiaries from winning federal contracts for the next three years. He wrote:

Given the company’s willful transgression of U.S. laws, it can no longer be presumed that BP will responsibly perform its contractor responsibilities. The demonstrated disregard for the law means that there is good reason to doubt that the company will abide by its obligations under its Department of Defense contracts. Moreover, the company’s repeated violation of environmental laws suggests an unacceptably high likelihood that BP will violate such laws in carrying out its contractual obligations. BP’s aggregate record of wrongdoing — including but not limited to causing the ongoing gusher in the Gulf of Mexico — evidences a lack of business honesty that seriously and directly affects its ability to perform its contractual duties.

Public Citizen has yet to receive a response or any indication that the president or the defense secretary has read the letter, Slocum informed TomDispatch this week.

“I am not aware at this moment of any plans to curtail or cancel any Department of Defense contracts that may exist at this time,” Department of Defense spokesperson Cheryl Irwin told TomDispatch. Irwin also stated that she knew of no plans to restrict the awarding of future contracts to BP.

The president has remained silent on the issue. Repeated requests by TomDispatch for comment from the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality went unanswered. In a statement to TomDispatch this week, however, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it “is closely monitoring the investigations into the circumstances leading to the explosion and spill at the Deepwater Horizon facility. EPA will weigh its options under our debarment authority and take appropriate actions.” No time frame, however, has been set for any type of decision. “It is really premature to speculate on the Agency’s actions,” an EPA official, who asked not to be named, told TomDispatch. “We’re on hold pending the larger federal investigation.”

Yesterday, the White House and BP agreed that the oil giant would establish a $20 billion escrow account to compensate claims resulting from the Gulf Coast oil spill. “This should provide some assurance to small business owners that BP is going to meet its responsibilities,” said President Obama following the announcement.

The message is clear. BP will be held accountable — but only to a point, and not nearly in strong enough terms, says Public Citizen’s Slocum. The escrow account is “a no-brainer,” he told TomDispatch. “But that’s just related to the company’s obligations to pay for a mess it created,” he pointed out, likening the situation to an individual breaking the law.  “If I commit a crime that causes damage, I don’t just pay restitution. I pay a punitive fine or I’m incarcerated. The question is: What is the version of incarceration for corporations?”

Slocum sees a 2007 guilty plea by BP Products North America for a felony violation of the Clean Air Act — stemming from a 2005 explosion at a BP refinery in Texas that killed 15 workers — as evidence that stronger sanctions are now warranted. The fine resulting from the Texas disaster was just a “blip on their balance sheet,” he says.

“You have to send a clear message to shareholders that committing felonies is not tolerated in the United States. And the way you do that is through some form of permanent sanctions.” Barring the company from government contracts, says Slocum, would be just such a step.

With anger boiling over in the Gulf, there seemingly could be no more egregious offender or more deserving “ass to kick” than BP’s. “I don’t know of any other oil companies operating in America that are currently on criminal probation,” says Slocum. “I don’t know any other oil companies that recently pled guilty to a felony. I don’t know any other oil companies that appear to have committed numerous acts of negligence that resulted in the largest industrial environmental disaster in American history. BP is an outlier, so it needs to be treated as an outlier.”

Somebody should tell the president. Again.