Army bases are determining their “carbon bootprint,” hoping to slash emissions 30 percent by 2015. While it seems like a noble plan, experts say the military is less enthusiastic about environmental measures that don’t overlap with strategic goals. “The further away greening efforts are from the military’s core war-fighting mission, the less likely it is that you're going to find a real effort," says Robert Durant, a professor at American University and author of The Greening of the US Military. Below, some of the US war machine’s environmental impacts.

The good

  • Many military bases now use renewable energy: California’s China Lake naval facility is powered by a geothermal plant, while Nevada’s Nellis Air Force Base gets juice from a massive solar array.
  • At North Carolina's Fort Bragg, troops train in mock villages built from recycled shipping containers. The container construction cuts waste and energy use, while reducing the price tag from $400,000 per village to just $25,000.
  • At forward operating bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, 85 percent of energy goes to power AC units that keep troops and equipment cool. Spraying foam insulation directly onto tents has cut energy losses by 45 percent, reducing the amount of diesel trucked to the front line and decreasing convoys’ exposure to attacks.

The bad
  • The armed forces rely heavily on domestic fuel, using 1.5 percent of America’s oil. That’s spurred investment in coal-to-liquid technologies, which release huge quantities of greenhouse gases, and the Department of Defense wants to start drilling for oil on military bases.
  • Forget hybrid Humvees. Efforts to build battery-powered tactical vehicles have fallen flat — the military will be using conventional gas-guzzlers for the foreseeable future.
  • In 2004, the Army ordered base commanders to halt any spending on environmental protection that isn’t required by law.
  • The Navy spent a decade fighting restrictions on its use of sonar in training exercises, which environmentalists fear can harm whales and other marine mammals. Officials say there's no proof sonar has caused any problems in the area in question — which may be technically correct but is sharply at odds with expert opinion.  

The ugly
  • The Pentagon claims that depleted uranium munitions, widely used by US troops in Iraq, are harmless. Scientists aren’t so sure: The Royal Society, Britain’s national academy of science, says the radioactive metal can poison soil and water, and raises risks of kidney damage and lung cancer.
  • Under the Bush Administration, the military won exemptions from environmental regulations protecting endangered species, migratory birds, and marine mammals. Now the DoD hopes to sidestep rules governing Superfund sites and air pollution, skipping costly clean-ups on 129 heavily-polluted sites and redefining “hazardous materials” to exclude unexploded munitions.
  • America’s military spending takes money that could go towards environmental projects: The price-tag for the war on terror could reach $3.5 trillion by 2017, enough dough to fund the EPA for the next 500 years or offset America’s total carbon footprint for four decades.
Story by Ben Whitford. This article originally appeared in Plenty in November 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

U.S. military is fighting new enemy
But is the Pentagon really going green, or just trying to save money?