DoD prepares for post-petroleum era

Tuesday - 10/5/2010, 7:10pm EDT

Christine Parthemore, fellow, Center for a New American Security

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The Defense Department's heavy reliance on petroleum has high costs in terms of dollars, military lives and the United States' ability to negotiate with other countries.

According to a report by the Center for New American Security, DoD depends on petroleum for up to 77 percent of its energy needs.

In an interview with the DorobekINSIDER, Christine Parthemore, a fellow at CNAS and co-author of the report, said DoD's dependence on oil creates "a huge vulnerability."

The report recommends DoD set a goal to be petroleum-free by 2040.

Parthemore said DoD accounts for 2 percent of the country's petroleum use.

Finding alternative fuels will help the department tackle a tightening budget.

According to The New York Times, while the military buys gas for just over $1 a gallon, getting that gallon to some bases costs $400.

Oil reliance costs manpower, forcing troops "to divert a lot of manpower in battle in guarding convoys and ensuring fuel can be transported to the operators using it," Parthemore said.

Troops that guard oil convoys have become targets for enemy fighters. An Army study found that one soldier or civilian engaged in fuel transport was killed for every 24 fuel convoys that set out in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Parthemore said she recognizes that replacing petroleum will be a "big challenge."

"You can't turn everything electric," Parthemore said.

For example, DoD flies large aircrafts that are built to be fueled by oil. Any military equipment that uses alternative fuel must meet technical specifications.

What DoD can do now is send a "strong demand signal" to the private sector for alternative fuels. Essentially, this would be a message that "American industries need to start producing the right kinds of fuels that DoD is going to need."

Over the past few decades, DoD has become more energy-efficient, Parthemore said. As recent as last week, Marines arrived in Afghanistan with portable solar panels, solar tent shields, and other equipment that U.S. Forces will use to reduce their dependence on oil, according to The New York Times.

That's a good start, Parthemore said, but not good enough in the long-term, which is why the study set a 30-year energy goal for DoD.

"You can grow more efficient at infinitum, but if you still have that high consumption, you still have the vulnerability to get around," she said.