WASHINGTON ― A Republican provision in the House’s fiscal 2024 defense policy bill would block the Defense Department — the world’s largest institutional emitter of fossil fuels — from implementing the president’s seven climate change executive orders, which seek to achieve net-zero emissions in all federal agencies by 2050.
If the House provision blocking their implementation becomes law, the Defense Department — responsible for 1% of U.S. emissions — would likely be unable to disclose emission levels as required under President Joe Biden’s executive actions. But the Pentagon may move ahead with some initiatives it views as necessary to improve combat performance, like vehicle electrification.
David Hart, a George Mason University professor specializing in science and technology policy, called the bill’s language “ignorance by directive” because it would bar emissions disclosures. But, he added, the legislation likely wouldn’t alter much of the department’s behavior since many of the steps it’s taken to comply with Biden’s executive actions “are things [it] wants to do anyway.”
“My hunch is a lot of the activities to comply with the [executive orders] are likely to go on because they’re authorized under other kinds of orders,” Hart told Defense News. “In practice, it may not be a big deal because many of the steps the [Defense Department] is taking to comply with these executive orders are very likely in the interest of the mission as well, like microgrids.”
The House passed 219-210 the FY24 National Defense Authorization Act in July, largely along party lines. Democrats defected because of the climate provision introduced by Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, and several other partisan amendments that restrict abortion access, medical care for transgender troops and diversity initiatives.
“President Biden’s executive orders have served as the catalyst for massive reforms at the Department of Defense that compromise national security to advance this climate fetish,” Roy said in July ahead of the vote on his amendment. “America’s war machine will literally depend on the wind and the sun.”
Republican leaders allowed votes on the amendments from Roy and others to secure the conservative Freedom Caucus’ support for the defense bill. The House passed Roy’s climate amendment in a 217-216 vote, largely along party lines. Only three Republicans voted against it: Reps. Lori Chavez-DeRemer of Oregon, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Zach Nunn of Iowa.
Roy’s provision barring the Defense Department from complying with Biden’s climate orders would only apply for FY24.
At current greenhouse gas emissions rates, the global average temperature is expected to rise by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius in the coming decades, resulting in more extreme weather events and likely making certain areas of the world uninhabitable, according to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Military vehicle electrification
The Pentagon has identified climate change as “a critical national security issue” and released a climate strategy in 2021. As part of that goal, the Defense Department aims to transition its roughly 170,000 non-tactical vehicle fleet to run on electricity or alternative fuels by 2030.
For its part, the Army plans to install a microgrid on all its installations by 2035 and field fully electric tactical vehicles by 2050.
Dorothy Robyn, who served as the undersecretary of defense for installations and environment under former President Barack Obama, said the Pentagon has long had an interest in vehicle electrification and microgrid installation to boost operational security.
“They put renewable energy on military bases everywhere because that contributes to the energy resilience of the base,” Robyn, who is now a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, told Defense News. “It really is all about mission.”
She noted that hybrid and electric tactical vehicles tend to perform better and quieter, helping them evade detection.
In pushing back against the Defense Department’s electrification efforts, Republicans have highlighted China’s dominance over the raw materials necessary to manufacture electric vehicles and solar panels.
“Right now, China controls the [electric vehicle] supply chain,” Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said in an April floor speech. “The communist regime produces about 75% of all lithium-ion batteries that power those electric vehicles.”
The undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, Bill LaPlante, released a nonpublic strategy on lithium-ion batteries in February, aimed at increasing the mining and production needed to produce them within the U.S. and friendly countries.
Additionally, the Pentagon spends more than $2.5 billion annually on energy research and development, with much of that focused on electrification.
House Republicans want to cut $34.8 million in planned research and development funding that the Pentagon requested for FY24 to transition vehicles to hybrid or electric power. The House Appropriations Committee advanced the defense spending bill with that cut in June. That bill would also bar Pentagon funds from implementing a proposed rule requiring defense contractors to disclose greenhouse gas emissions, a requirement under one of Biden’s executive orders.
The defense policy and spending bills in the Democratic-held Senate do not include these climate restrictions, setting up a showdown with House Republicans later this year.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.