Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Green Water Navy

Trouble Over Oily Waters

One hundred years ago this year Winston Churchill made a momentous decision. The world's greatest navy was to stop running on Welsh coal and go over to Persian oil. If you want a date in which the world entered the Oil Age, this is it.

There were sound technical reasons for doing this - more power, less smoke and less shovelling being the main ones - but a lot of people still thought he was mad. The British Empire at that time covered a quarter of the globe, but mostly this was the quarter with no oil in it. Before the Navy could defend the country, it would now have to defend its own fuel supplies.

The critics may have had a point, as two years later a British and Indian army invaded Iraq to safeguard its fuel, suffering a disaster at a place called Kut in the process. We invaded again in 1941 and embarked on ‘regime change’ in Iran in the same year. We then handed the title of Top Nation to the USA and they did a bit of regime change of their own in 1952.

They also launched an invasion in 1979 that was disrupted by the weather and ended in a massive helicopter pile-up in the desert, whilst Iraq has subsequently been invaded not once but twice.

That's quite a lot of blood for quite a lot of oil. Our politicians don’t seem to see a problem with this, but the greatest navy in the world has other ideas and this summer the mighty USS Nimitz led a task force on manoeuvres near Hawaii where the ships and aircraft used a 50:50 mix of conventional and biofuels. 

In The Navy

Now the USS Nimitz is an aircraft carrier I’ve actually heard of, as in 1980 it was sucked through a time warp back to 1941 – unless that was just a film.

It was also the subject of a reality TV series in 2008 in which we discovered she has a Wiccan coven on board. Not that this is a big surprise as the US military is pretty pagan-friendly these days. You can have ‘Wiccan’ on your dog tags and, if you don’t make it home, a pentacle on your gravestone. 

Since last year they are also gay-friendly, and now they’re growing their own fuel some may be thinking they’ve turned into a bunch of floating hippies. Further evidence of this is the case of the USS Acadia that had to return home from Gulf War I as thirty six of the crew were pregnant, gaining itself the inevitable nickname of ‘The Love Boat’.

However the Navy still drops bombs, fires missiles, lands marines, launches fighter planes and engages in various other non-fluffy activities. And that’s the point of the Great Green Fleet experiment as, apart from a few nuclear powered vessels, all of this requires oil.


Biofuels are carbon neutral, meaning the carbon dioxide they release when burnt is balanced by the carbon dioxide the crops they were made from used whilst growing. However they don’t have a totally unblemished record. 

First there was the ‘splash and dash’ racket, whereby small quantities of oil from crops was added to ordinary petrol in order to qualify for the lucrative US government subsidy. 

Then some uncomfortable truths were found about the palm oil that was being used to make biofuels. Grown on cleared rainforests or swamps, which are massive carbon sinks, palm oil was actually responsible for more greenhouse gases than ordinary oil.

Finally there is the problem that agricultural land is finite. As well as preventing climate change we do also have to feed seven billion human beings. Fertiliser production itself produces masses of carbon dioxide, so we really want to use as little as possible which means less intensive, not more intensive, food production. We may not have land spare for growing food.

However, despite these rather serious problems, if you want to run a jet fighter without damaging the climate or having to invade Middle Eastern countries, biofuels may well be your only option.

End of the Oil Age?

This has not been popular with a Congress awash with oil money, even though US politicians like to boast about “supporting the troops”. However the Navy is sticking to its guns and claims the exercises have been a success and is planning a permanent Green Fleet by 2016. 

The US Army too, fed up of having to guard its oil tankers from insurgents, is to launch a program of experimental fuel cells, electric and hybrid tanks.

Churchill got some stick in 1912 too, but his oil powered navy went on to win two World Wars.  His decision also turned out to be a landmark in history, a point where the Coal Age ended and the Oil Age began. Whether the voyage of the Great Green Fleet will in years to come be regarded as the moment the Oil Age ended is for future historians to decide.

No comments: