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Greening the U.S. military

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Q: What is the U.S. military doing to reduce its carbon footprint and generally green its operations?

A: As the world's largest polluter, the U.S. military has its work cut out for it when it comes to greening its operations. According to the nonprofit watchdog group Project Censored, American forces generate some 750,000 tons of toxic waste annually—more than the five largest U.S. chemical companies combined. Although this pollution occurs globally on U.S. bases in dozens of countries, there are tens of thousands of toxic "hot spots" on some 8,500 military properties right here on American soil.

"Not only is the military emitting toxic material directly into the air and water," reports Project Censored, "it's poisoning the land of nearby communities, resulting in increased rates of cancer, kidney disease, increasing birth defects, low birth weight and miscarriage." The nonprofit Military Toxics Project is working with the U.S. government to identify problem sites and educate neighbors about the risks.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military manages 25 million acres of land that provide habitat for some 300 threatened or endangered species. The military has harmed endangered animal populations by bomb tests (and been sued for it), reports Project Censored, and military testing of low-frequency underwater sonar technology has been implicated in the stranding deaths of whales worldwide. Despite being linked to such problems, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has repeatedly sought exemptions from Congress for compliance with federal laws including the Migratory Bird Treaties Act, the Wildlife Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

It's unclear whether the U.S. military is taking heed of criticisms in regard to its toxic pollution and endangered species management, but it is undoubtedly concerned about climate change, as its effects on the environment could lead to unprecedented natural resource wars and mass migrations of people. And reducing our reliance on potentially hostile foreign oil sources is a short-term national security imperative as well. A recent Obama administration directive calls for the DoD to draw 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020. Nikhil Sonnad of the GreenFuelSpot website reports that the Army and Air Force are planning to include solar arrays on several bases in sunny western states. The Air Force is also building the nation's largest biomass energy plants in Florida and Georgia, and the Navy is building three large geothermal energy plants and funding research into extracting energy from ocean waves.

Some of the military's R&D into renewables is for battlefield applications. Outfitting troops with the capability to produce their own on-site power from solar and wind sources not only makes sourcing oil less of a necessity but also should serve to reduce casualties from fuel transport operations. More than 1,000 American troops have lost their lives delivering fuel in the past few years alone (in part because enemy combatants often use fuel trucks as attack targets), says Sonnad.

Elisabeth Rosenthal reports in The New York Times that "there is great hope that some of the renewable energy technology being developed for battle will double back and play a role in civilian life." She adds that the armed forces have enough purchasing power to create genuine markets in the nonmilitary world.

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