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Close Ties Exist Between Oil, Syria & U.S. Military Casualties

Thursday - 8/29/2013, 7:03am  ET

You know that saving energy saves money, but did you know that it could literally save lives?

Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, began a fascinating recent article for Foreign Policy magazine thus:

With domestic oil production up, imports declining, and new oil and gas reserves being discovered, some question whether energy remains, or ever was, a security challenge and military vulnerability for the United States. The rise in oil prices back over $100 per barrel in the wake of Egypt's political turmoil provides a sobering answer.

As if to highlight his point, the devastation unfolding right now in Syria has pushed oil prices even higher. At the time of writing, the WTI Crude Oil price was above $109 per barrel .

Energy efficiency saves Marines
In his article, Mabus also highlighted a 2011  Marine Corps study that revealed that in Afghanistan, one Marine was killed or injured for every 50 convoys that ran during the worst of the fighting. The study noted that improvised explosive devices disrupted one out of 17 of these convoys.

How are convoys and the price of oil related? Well, 70% of logistical support to onshore Marine Corps forces goes to fuel and water. Further still, the Marine Corps’ fuel consumption has skyrocketed. Today’s infantry company – an element of 125 to 150 Marines – uses more fuel than did an entire infantry battalion – 900 to 1,000 Marines – 12 years ago. About 60% of the fuel Marines burn is for climate control for equipment and personnel.  Secretary Mabus connects the dots: “[C]utting fuel means fewer convoys and fewer casualties.”

The new arms race
All branches of the military are making serious strides in adopting renewable energy, investing substantial amounts of money and pledging aggressive new energy-mix targets to diversify away from foreign fossil fuels. However, these developments are not without formidable opponents.

Last Fall, Congressional Republicans proposed legislation that would have prohibited the Pentagon from buying any fuels that cost more than their traditional fossil-fuel counterparts . Sources close to defense procurement see the influence of oil and gas companies behind some of these efforts . While those efforts have subsided for the time being, the argument that renewable energy spending is a “New Obama Stimulus” endures.

Perhaps that explains why Secretary Mabus’ Foreign Policy article feels like a salvo. In the face of the politically powerful argument that the military’s new energy priorities are just a waste of taxpayer money designed to prop up a faltering liberal agenda, Mabus counters with another politically powerful argument: that we can count the cost of opposition in the denomination of dead Marines. It looks like Mabus has decided to take this fight head on.

Mean and Green
The Marine Corps has several initiatives underway to help lighten its logistical footprint. The Ground Renewable Expeditionary Energy System, or GREENS, uses four high-energy lithium battery packs to provide up to 300 Watts of power for 16 hours. A solar panel array can maintain a 300-Watt charge so long as there is sustained sunshine. Between the battery packs and the solar array, troops have 24 hours’ worth of energy . In an ongoing effort to reduce the size and weight of GREENS, the Marine Corps will begin testing Cummins’ 5- to 60-Kilowatt generators next year. Cummins’ generators are also expected to improve overall system efficiency .

Meanwhile, the Hybrid Dish/Engine Expeditionary Generator, or HyDE-2G, program aims to develop a hybrid tactical generator based on concentrating solar thermal power generation technology. Raytheon has a contract to develop these next-generation, tactical systems, and the company expects its design to save 40% in fuel costs over existing technologies.

Independent of foreign oil
These are but a few examples of the kind of strategy the Marine Corps and other military branches are pursuing to wean themselves off of their dependence on foreign fossil fuels. After all, the military is the world’s largest fossil fuels consumer, and oil price shocks have an outsized effect on its budget. Price shocks such as those precipitated by unrest in Libya and Egypt cost the Department of Defense $5 billion over what was budgeted for the three most recent fiscal years. For the Navy and Marine Corps alone, every $1 increase in the price of a barrel of oil costs U.S. taxpayers an additional $30 million per year . These costs are so common and pernicious that they’re often called “instability surcharges.”

As Syria is strafed, Libyan protests continue, and Egypt’s instability persists, it’s likely that oil price volatility is going to be around for a while. Given that the stakes in this fight are nothing short of warfighters’ lives and scads of money in a budget-constrained era, the military has every motivation to push its efficient - and renewable-energy agenda forward. In Secretary Mabus’ own words,

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