Seawater=Fuel≠Less Greenhouse Emissions: Why the Pentagon Can’t be Trusted to Take on Climate Change on its Own.

The concept of fuel from seawater seems to be a tool against climate change… until you look into what it entails.

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After over a decade of research by the US Navy,  technology has been developed that converts the hydrogen and carbon from seawater into fuel. A scale-model replica airplane has been filmed flying using the new seawater fuel. A toy plane is hard to get excited about, but it shows that existing engines can use the energy source without being modified. It’s an impressive breakthrough that once again shows the scale of the Pentagon’s Research and Development wing. Pentagon projects, such as this one, can easily go undetected by mainstream media. The DoD doesn’t need the same level of press coverage that an Apple product requires for market purposes. However, companies just like Apple have benefited from federal programs like Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) which develop some of the world’s most cutting-edge systems. While these innovations came from national security concerns, they are often later applied commercially. (The application of GPS and other satellite-based systems is a perfect example). Seawater fuel may also become available to consumers down the road, but this shouldn’t be confused as good for the environment.

No one can predict with certainty the success of a new piece of innovation, but what is known is that the seawater-to-fuel process is years off from being ready for primetime. Navy researchers believe that US military ships won’t be able to produce their own fuel until the next decade.

This is where skepticism over the story has appeared from environmental activists, and why it’s warranted. Will deriving fuel from seawater actually help fight climate change? Researchers have disseminated the warning for years now that oceans are at their limits of carbon uptake, making the waters more acidic and less able to absorb manmade CO2. So the concept of fuel from seawater seems to be a tool against climate change… until you look into what it entails. The two main problems with this new fuel source is (a) even once we wait for it to be developed, is it worth it? and (b) a branch of the Pentagon controls the fate of the project.

The timeline, as mentioned earlier, shows that this technology is only a novelty for at least another ten years. The Navy has the raw ability to extract hydrocarbons from seawater, but when can we see a ship run off of the water that it takes in? (And in the case of the Navy, an aircraft carrier). It’s horribly counterproductive if the seawater is processed off site then transported to active fleets. The amount of petroleum required to just transport the seawater fuel product to deployed vessels would negate any carbon offset hoped of being achieved. Therefore, the next goal is to give military ships the capability of producing their own seawater fuel with an installation of onboard catalytic converters.

That said, even once on-site production becomes a reality ships will still rely on fossil fuels. Unfortunately, there has been no mention of the catalytic convertors operating off of solar panels- instead the system will run off good ol’ gasoline, the amount of which is currently TBD. So as you can see, seawater-powered fleets is a far cry from a green revolution. But it’s a mistake to think that the US Navy is in the green revolution business. The Department of Defense has been, and will always be, in the business ensuring military readiness and global dominance. When the announcement on this technology was made, an enthuasitic Vice Adm. Philip Cullom explained why this is such a big deal:

“It’s a huge milestone for us,” said Vice Adm. Philip Cullom. “We are in very challenging times where we really do have to think in pretty innovative ways to look at how we create energy, how we value energy and how we consume it. We need to challenge the results of the assumptions that are the result of the last six decades of constant access to cheap, unlimited amounts of fuel.”

I don’t mean to vilify the Vice Admiral, his quote is accurate and honest assessment on how this development will be applied. This article’s purpose is to bring down any giddiness on the prospect of this technology being a move away from fossil fuels. Because as mentioned earlier,  the Department of Defense is in the business of increasing military readiness and global dominance.

Watchdog groups like Project Censored have identified the Department of Defense as the worst polluter in the world, well above the usual suspects of multinationals. I’m sure there are some that see these sorts of reports as far-left hyperbole, but that does not detract from the fact that the US military has an extensive track record of toxic dumping and unprecedented use of fossil fuels. This can be traced from the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam to  Camp Lejeune here in the US. The DoD has shown that the institution does not see a strong connection between protecting the environment and national security. Now climate change is a far greater issue since it poses as an existential threat, and to the Pentagon’s credit they have identified it as such.

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Erin Brokovich standing with prostesters in DC  urging Pres. Obama to help families of Camp Lejeune

So is climate change the issue that will finally get the DoD to start cleaning up its environmental record? There is some optimistic evidence to say yes. Besides the Pentagon’s plans to cope with ensuing rising sea levels, the Obama Administration has made a pointed stance expanding the military’s role in the fight against climate change. In 2010, the Obama Administration announced the directive to get 20% of the DoD’s energy from renewables by 2020. The same administration signed into law the Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act which grants medical care to those made ill by the Lejeune water supply. Has the Pentagon truly begun to see the national security implications of it’s heinous record of pollution? I argue that the answer is between ‘barely’ and ‘meh’. Climate Change is undoubtedly on the Pentagon’s radar, but so is a zombie apocalypse. Just because the Pentagon is aware of something, doesn’t mean it will act on it- especially if it requires sacrificing the military supremacy.

You know that the Pentagon is acutely aware of the research done on climate change because they have conducted several studies themselves. Establishment R&D groups like the RAND Corporation have been perfunctorily contracted to analyze how the military could reduce it’s carbon footprint. If you take the time to read the exhaustive papers, you can tell that its understood greenhouse emissions have serious consequences for the nation. (No ‘global warming is a hoax’ sentiment in these circles). Unfortunately for climate advocates, the reports that show concern with climate change also strongly advise a continuous reliance on fossil fuels. (If you have time, you should at least read the summary from the RAND report). There are calls for a marginal increase in wind energy, but overall a heavy reliance on fossil fuels for the foreseeable future is the general consensus in the DoD. All hesitancy to use more renewable energy stems from the concern that it will limit the might of the US military. Renewable sources are unable to sustain the growing energy needs and would come at an increased fiscal cost as well. In the same 2011 RAND study, the authors came right out to say that seawater-to-fuel technology would be not be fiscally feasible. (pg 39). Did the authors know about the Navy’s work on the new fuel source? Who knows. What can be assumed is that RAND would probably be opposed to incorporating seawater-to-fuel capabilities if it detracts from military strength simply for greenhouse gas reduction. I apologize for the cynicism, but if solar is considered too cumbersome for RAND, then I’m sure they aren’t going to wait around for seawater fuel).

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The guy from Dr. Stranglove was based on a real RAND Corporation adviser

On an optimistic note, there is reason to believe that the Navy won’t be the sole owners of seawater fuel technology forever. As mentioned earlier, the Pentagon has developed some of the most groundbreaking innovations that have instrumental in building our current day economy. (AKA private businesses). ARPANET, a communication system constructed in the 1960s to survive a nuclear attack, was constructed by on the Pentagon’s dime. While it was designed for military purposes it later went on to be the foundation for the world wide web. The internet has been improved upon and expanded through private investment, being fully ingratiated into the world economy. So it’s not farfetched to think that private groups will work to make the seawater-to-fuel conversion a zero-emission process.

The seawater fuel breakthrough isn’t the only prospect the military has in curbing greenhouse emissions. There have been reports that Pentagon is funding research on converting ocean waves and common algae into energy sources as well. They are all exciting projects that have potential to move the country away from fossil fuels. But ‘potential’ doesn’t mean anything until it actually happens. Ultimately, this story shows that the government alone cannot be trusted to solve all problems. A tempered summary but at least it’s accurate.