Panetta links environment, energy and national security in groundbreaking speech

Source: Annie Snider, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, May 4, 2012

Climate change and oil dependence are issues of national security, and the Pentagon will take a lead role in shifting the way the country uses energy, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last night.

In remarks made at a Washington, D.C., reception held by the Environmental Defense Fund, Panetta became the highest-level official to draw a clear line between environmental, energy and security issues since their relationship was formally established in Pentagon strategy two years ago.

“In the 21st century, reality is that there are environmental threats that constitute threats to our national security,” he said last night. With carefully chosen words, the Defense secretary stopped short of naming individual threats, such as the standoff with Iran that has raised global oil prices, instead laying out a strategic framework for how the military thinks about and is acting on long-term environmental and energy issues.

At a time when the scientific grounding of climate change and the military’s alternative energy investments are under assault from some members of Congress, Panetta signaled a personal investment in the issues — a gesture that was not lost on a room packed with many of the country’s top environmental and security experts (Greenwire, Feb. 23).

“As someone who now faces a budget shortfall exceeding $3 billion because of higher-than-expected fuel costs, I have a deep interest in more sustainable and efficient energy options,” Panetta said, pointing to the services’ commitment to adding 3 gigawatts of renewable energy in the coming years and emphasizing the military’s history of anticipating trends

Panetta may not have offered any new initiatives or policies, but an endorsement from the Pentagon’s top official sends an important signal both within the ranks and to the rest of the country, said Dan Nolan, a retired Army colonel who runs an energy security firm.

“This gives the issue command emphasis,” he said.

“One year ago, [Panetta] was sitting over at the CIA dealing with the most tactical issues of a very important mission,” Nolan said, alluding to the anniversary of the mission that killed Osama bin Laden. “One year following that, he’s shifting to what he sees as the next major mission.”

The security implications of climate change have been a special interest of Panetta’s. During his tenure as director of the CIA — the post he held most recently — he launched a Center on Climate Change and National Security. The unit was targeted by Republicans in Congress, and many insiders saw its survival as a sign that Panetta had made it a personal priority (Greenwire, July 1).

Last night, he said that rising seas, extended droughts and more frequent and severe natural disasters stand to raise demand for humanitarian assistance from the U.S. military

Noting that melting polar ice caps are prompting competing claims in the mineral-rich Arctic, Panetta issued a clarion call for the United States to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. The international treaty governing activity in the world’s waters has been endorsed by military leaders, business groups and environmentalists but has been stalled in the Senate for years by conservatives who contend that it relinquishes U.S. sovereignty (see related story).

“We are the only industrialized nation that has not approved that treaty. It is time that we did it,” Panetta said last night.

Supporters of the treaty say there may be a window for passage during the lame-duck session of Congress this fall and that advocacy from Panetta could tip the balance. The Defense secretary has strong relationships on both sides of the aisle after 16 years as a California congressman and was confirmed for the Pentagon post last year by a unanimous vote in the Senate.

Panetta, who called for ratification of the treaty when he served as co-chairman of the Joint Ocean Commission, appears to be stepping up his rhetoric on the issue now. He is scheduled to speak at an event on the security implications of the Law of the Sea hosted by the Pew Charitable Trusts and Atlantic Council next week.