The Pentagon’s Carbon Boot Print

With both France and the UK now “at war” with ISIS in Syria and joining the U.S.-led bombing mission, it’s not likely that there are many voices at the COP21 climate change negotiations in Paris who would dare to discuss what a few critics have called “the elephant in the room” – the fact that the military is not just the world’s biggest institutional consumer of petroleum products, but the greatest source of global warming and climate change.

In fact, even if the delegates wanted to formally discuss that issue, they are prevented from doing so “by demand” of the U.S. government – at least in any official capacity at conferences such as Paris COP21.

In a remarkable piece originally published by the International Action Center, Sara Flounders wrote in 2014: “There is an elephant in the climate debate that by U.S. demand cannot be discussed or even seen. This agreement to ignore the elephant is now the accepted basis of all international negotiations on climate change. It is well understood by every possible measurement that the Pentagon, the U.S. military machine, is the world’s biggest institutional consumer of petroleum products and the world’s worst polluter of greenhouse gas emissions and many other toxic pollutants. Yet the Pentagon has a blanket exemption in all international climate agreements. Ever since the Kyoto Accords or Kyoto Protocol negotiations in 1998, in an effort to gain U.S. compliance, all U.S. military operations worldwide and within the U.S. are exempt from measurement or agreements on reduction [my emphasis].” [1]

This astonishing revelation was recently expanded upon by Gar Smith (editor emeritus of Earth Island Journal), who wrote that “despite being the planet’s single greatest institutional consumer of fossil fuels, the Pentagon has been granted a unique exemption from reducing – or even reporting – its pollution. The U.S. won this prize during the 1998 Kyoto Protocol negotiations (COP4) after the Pentagon insisted on a ‘national security provision’ that would place its operations beyond global scrutiny or control.” [2]

So not only is the Pentagon exempt from any climate agreements, it is also exempt from having to reduce its own greenhouse gas emission levels and exempt even from reporting those levels. Smith adds: “Also exempted from pollution regulation: all Pentagon weapons testing, military exercises, NATO operations, and ‘peacekeeping’ missions.” [3]

Nonetheless, despite those generous exemptions, “the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the Kyoto Accord, the House amended the Pentagon budget to ban any ‘restriction of armed forces under the Kyoto Protocol,’ and George W. Bush rejected the entire climate treaty because ‘it would cause serious harm to the U.S. economy’ (by which he clearly meant the U.S. oil and gas industries).” [4]

The Harper government in Canada later followed suit, dropping out of the Kyoto agreement in 2009.

As Sara Flounders had revealed: “The complete U.S. military exemption from greenhouse gas emissions calculations includes more than 1,000 U.S. bases in more than 130 countries around the world, its 6,000 facilities in the U.S., its aircraft carriers and jet aircraft. Also excluded are its weapons testing and all multilateral operations such as the giant U.S. commanded NATO military alliance and AFRICOM, the U.S. military alliance now blanketing Africa.” [5]

Flounders noted that these 1998 provisions “became the basis of all future proposed international meetings on a climate treaty,” including COP21 now taking place in Paris.

“Forgotten Soldier”?

It’s fair to say that the general public worldwide knows absolutely nothing about these Pentagon exemptions from a pending climate change agreement, but U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry likely does.

In a recent interview with Kerry in the Rolling Stone, writer Jeff Goodell called Kerry “a forgotten soldier” in the “climate wars” and claimed that “no one has done more in the trenches of this battle than Kerry. He has been in the fight since the first Earth Day, in 1970, and he has not let up since, participating in practically every climate conference and U.N. climate meeting in the past 30 years.” [6]

It’s difficult to square such claims about Kerry with what we now know about those Pentagon exemptions. Indeed, given that he’s been attending all those conferences and meetings over the years, it’s worth asking why Kerry has never said anything publicly about these exemptions, which favour the greatest climate polluter on the planet.

Moreover, as I wrote in this space a year ago, “…John Kerry’s federal financial disclosure records in January 2013 revealed investments in two Calgary-based tar sands producers: Suncor and Cenovus Energy. Both companies are backing the Energy East pipeline [to eastern Canada] as an export alternative to Keystone XL. So apparently, tar sands shareholder John Kerry was involved in [2012] Bilderberg discussions about demonizing [Vladimir] Putin on behalf of Western oil interests.” [7]

Kerry subsequently divested from those Suncor and Cenovus share when he became U.S. Secretary of State.

He recently cancelled TransCanada Corporation’s Keystone XL pipeline project after the very lengthy State Department review, but other tar sands pipelines to the U.S. built or expanded during those years are set to bring similar amounts of tar sands crude to oil refineries in Midwest and the Gulf of Mexico. Further, TransCanada’s proposed 1.1 million barrels per day Energy East pipeline, reaching tidewater on the Canadian East Coast, would also be used to export the crude to Gulf refineries and to Europe.

Much of that tar sands crude is important to the Pentagon and the military.

Section 526

Macdonald Stainsby of Oil Sands Truth told The Dominion several years ago, “Only about 20 per cent of tar sands crude can be refined into oil [and gas] for a conventional car, but it is almost identical to jet fuel.” The Dominion writers noted, “This helps explain the demand for tar sands oil, which is costly to extract and refine….The Pentagon is the largest institutional user of petroleum products in the world, burning through 395,000 barrels of oil a day. Emissions from fighter jets and planes cause disproportionately high impacts on the climate because of the way they mix with atmospheric gasses at high altitudes. Much of this fuel comes from tar sands oil.” [8]

The same article quoted Ricardo Acuna of the Alberta-based Parkland Institute, who said that former U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney’s National Energy Policy “identified expanding Canadian tar sands production as critical to U.S. security.” Acuna added, “Reduced tar sands production would force the U.S. to reduce growth in energy consumption, including for their military.” [9]

This would explain why Big Oil and the Harper government in Canada were so adamant about repealing something called Section 526 contained in the 2007 U.S. Energy Security and Independence Act.

As The Tyee’s Geoff Dembicki wrote in his 2011 series about the tar sands, “In 2007, climate-concerned policymakers led by Democratic congressman Henry Waxman managed to insert provision 526 into the Energy Security and Independence Act. Put simply, the provision made it illegal for U.S. government agencies to buy unconventional fuels with large carbon footprints. Though its ambiguous wording is still a source of contention, Waxman soon made clear he meant for the law to apply to fuel imports from Alberta’s oil sands. ‘This provision,’ Waxman wrote, ‘ensures that federal agencies are not spending taxpayer dollars on new fuel sources that will exacerbate global warming’.” [10]

Scientists concur that the production, refining and burning of tar sands crude release at least 23% more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil.

Somehow, Section 526 was overlooked by the powerful oil lobby in Washington and it became the law of the land, prompting the Canadian embassy to fly into action. Dembicki wrote: “Canadian embassy staff had by early Feb. 2008 flagged the provision to the American Petroleum Institute, Exxon Mobil, BP, Chevron, Marathon, Devon and Encana, internal emails reveal. ‘As yours is a company involved in the production of oil sands in Canada,’ then-energy counsellor Paul Connors wrote to an Exxon Mobil lobbyist, ‘I wanted to bring this issue to your attention’.” [11]

The U.S. military would be hardest hit by Section 526, given that the Department of Defense is by far the largest U.S. government agency that purchases fossil fuels. “The American Petroleum Institute soon formed a working group to monitor the provision. That group met with Canadian embassy staff and representatives from Alberta’s Washington office in early February [2008]. Canada raised its concerns through official diplomatic channels as well. Then-American ambassador Michael Wilson wrote to the U.S. Secretary of Defence that month, stating that Canada did not want to see Section 526 applied to fossil fuels produced from Alberta’s oil sands.” [12]

The intense lobbying to repeal Section 526 paid off, and the provision went the way of other federal fuel quality standards and clean energy clauses in the U.S. – just in time for ramping up the “endless war” efforts of the neocons and Washington hawks.

Energy Contracts

Military analyst and critic Nick Turse wrote in 2010: “As an institution, the Pentagon runs on oil. Its jet fighters, bombers, tanks, Humvees, and other vehicles burn 75% of the fuel used by the Department of Defense. For example, B-52 bombers consume 47,000 gallons per mission, and when an F-16 fighter kicks in its afterburners, it burns through $300 worth of fuel in a minute…Thanks to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Department of Defense has been consuming vast quantities of fuel. According to 2008 figures, for example, U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan used a staggering 90 million gallons per month.” [13]

Turse reported that in 2009 the U.S. military awarded $22.5 billion in energy contracts, with more than $16 billion of that going to purchase bulk fuel. “Some 10 top petroleum suppliers got the lion’s share, more than $11.5 billion, among them big names like Shell, ExxonMobil and Valero. The largest contractor, however, was BP…” [14]

In the five years since Turse’s reportage, the U.S. military’s bulk fuel purchase contracts have grown well beyond $16 billion annually, given the expansion of U.S. military bases across the planet. It’s likely that Shell, ExxonMobil, BP and Valero have retained their place in the top 10 military suppliers. All four companies are directly involved in Alberta tar sands production and the Gulf Coast refining of that crude, which will continue to be exported to the U.S. despite the cancellation of Keystone XL.

As the Council of Canadians recently noted, “A study by researchers from University College London have concluded that 85 per cent of the tar sands cannot be burned if the world is to limit climate change (as it must) to 2 degrees Celsius. More specifically, this means that no more than 7.5 billion barrels of oil can be extracted from the tar sands by 2050. At the present rate of extraction (about 2.98 million barrels per day), Canada would hit that maximum limit within 7 years.” [15]

John Kerry, of course, explained none of this in his recent Rolling Stone interview. But with regard to the Paris climate talks now underway, Kerry said: “What we will do in Paris, I hope, is gather a head of steam with a message to the marketplace that is significant enough. If 150 nations are taking it seriously and setting targets, even if they don’t make them, that will generate massive investment and a huge amount of private-sector activity.” [16]

But with the world’s largest climate polluter – the Pentagon and the U.S. military – exempt from any climate agreement, the whole process seems rigged: not just to obscure the military/climate change connection, but to shift the burden of carbon reduction to other nations, industries, small businesses, and every-day folks across the planet.

No doubt the climate crisis requires everyone to do their part and many are eager to become involved in climate action; but it’s also important to recognize when unfairness is systemic.

In a recent op-ed published in Toronto’s Globe & Mail, Canada’s Wade Davis wrote about his frustrating experience at Copenhagen’s COP15 in 2009, and he asked rhetorically: “If climate change is the threat we now know it to be, why has the international response been so fundamentally tepid?” [17]

Given what I’ve learned in researching for this article, I would ask a different question: Is it possible that at least some other countries’ negotiators have known for years about the Pentagon/Military climate exemptions and have been reluctant to act in the face of such unfairness and hypocrisy?

Cone of Silence

Apparently, no whistle-blower has ever come forward, no climate negotiator, or politician, or Big Green organization has ever mentioned these Pentagon exemptions to the press. The “Cone of Silence” that descended on this issue in 1998 and which has remained in place ever since is somewhat baffling.

But in a sense, it mirrors the silence given to the whole topic of war and climate change. As Alan Maki, one of the founders of Minnesotans for Peace and Social Justice, wrote in a letter published two years ago: “The one important aspect of climate change the Left keeps missing is the fact that Wall Street’s very lucrative military-industrial complex leaves the largest carbon footprint of any industry. So, why have the peace and environmental movements, along with most of the Left, failed to make this important connection?” [18]

Maki noted that “One aircraft carrier of the Nimitz class carries three million gallons of aircraft fuel. Fuel for just 80 aircraft.” Calling that alone “one heck of a carbon footprint,” Maki asked, “How much of what is produced from the Tar Sands will be consumed by the Military-Industrial Complex?” Then he added: “For some reason all these foundation-funded peace organizations and environmental organizations don’t want to acknowledge that the Military-Industrial Complex bears primary responsibility for global warming and climate change. Perhaps because the ‘great philanthropists’ funding the foundations profit so handsomely from militarism and wars?” [19]

For his part, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told Rolling Stone where his hopes for reducing climate change lay: “…you have to hope that somebody comes up with clean-energy technology, which makes it competitive with fossil fuel, and then, boom, you get your low-carbon economy.” [20]

This dream of a climate-change techno-fix never seems to die, whether it’s carbon-capture and storage (CCS), geo-engineering, or twisty lightbulbs. But as Alan Maki wrote, “If changing our light bulbs contributes to ending global warming and climate change, can you imagine the contribution peace would make towards this effort?” [21] Similarly, Gar Smith wrote: “If we hope to stabilize our climate, we will need to start spending less money on war.” [22]

Back in September, U.S. President Barack Obama told Rolling Stone interviewer John Goodell about his own hopes for a solution to the climate change crisis. “…I’m a big believer that the human imagination can solve problems. We don’t usually solve them as fast as we need to. It’s sort of like two cheers for democracy. We try everything else, I think Churchill said, and when we’ve exhausted every other alternative, we finally do the right thing. Hopefully, the same will be true here.” [23]

If Obama really wants to “finally do the right thing” on climate change, he could immediately cancel the Pentagon/U.S. Military exemptions from the pending Paris climate agreement (and any future agreement) and require that its terms be legally binding.

Such a move on Obama’s part wouldn’t need “human imagination,” but it would need human courage.


[1] Sara Flounders, “The Pentagon – The Climate Elephant,” International Action Center (Sept. 14, 2014); republished by Global Research (Sept. 17, 2014).

[2] Gar Smith, “Global Warming’s Unacknowledged Threat: The Pentagon,” Truth-out.org, Nov. 29, 2015

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Flounders, op cit.

[6] John Goodell, “John Kerry on Climate Change: The Fight of Our Time,” Rolling Stone (December 1, 2015).

[7] Joyce Nelson, “Bilderberg vs. Putin,” Counterpunch (Dec. 10. 2014).

[8] Maryam Adrangi, SK Hussan, “Fueling Climate Injustice,” The Dominion (April 11, 2011).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Geoff Dembicki, “Breakfast With the Oil Sands’ Top Salesman,” The Tyee (March 15, 2011).

[11] Ibid.

[13] Nick Turse, “Tomgram: Nick Turse, BP and the Pentagon’s Dirty Little Secret,” TomDispatch.com, June 17, 2010.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Council of Canadians, “Trudeau’s climate plan for Paris falls well short of what’s needed,” November 28, 2015.

[16] Goodell, op cit.

[17] Wade Davis, “Why not a war on global warming?” The Globe and Mail, December 2, 2015.

[18] Alan Maki, “Climate change and the military-industrial complex,” Letter published in Canadian Dimension, January 26, 2014.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Goodell, op cit.

[21] Maki, op cit.

[22] Smith, op cit.

[23] Jeff Goodell, “Obama Takes on Climate Change: The Rolling Stone Interview,” Rolling Stone (September 23, 2015).

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Joyce Nelson’s sixth book, Beyond Banksters: Resisting the New Feudalism, can be ordered at: http://watershedsentinel.ca/banksters. She can be reached through www.joycenelson.ca.

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