by John Conger
On February 28, 2023, the Readiness Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee held its first hearing of the new Congress, with new Chairman Mike Waltz (R-FL) presiding, a handful of new Members joining the Subcommittee, and a newly minted Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations and Environment, Brendan Owens, joining his service counterparts to discuss the installations portfolio. While the hearing was held in advance of the submission of the President’s Budget Request, there was still much to learn both from new voices and from old voices in new roles.
Several months ago, after the election, I shared some thoughts on what might be expected from the Republican House, particularly in the context of past Congresses where Republicans held the majority and made progress on climate security. Tuesday’s discussion echoed some of the same themes I highlighted, including an emphasis on mission assurance and installation resilience, concerns about Russia and China, and a particular concern about critical minerals.
In his opening statement, Chairman Waltz invoked concerns about China, both in the context of threats in the Pacific and the context of Beijing’s dominance of critical minerals supply chains. He noted that the leverage this gives China as the United States pursues vehicle electrification, renewable energy and large-scale battery storage. He also said he found it “concerning” that the DoD was focused on climate change as a national security priority because of this leverage – and particularly noted he wanted to dig into the Army’s plans to electrify its tanks.
Later, the Chairman posed it as a choice. In perhaps his most illustrative statement, he said, “We’re charging headlong into our climate plans… but we cannot trade risk to climate for risk to force.” In other words, under his chairmanship the Department is going to get some ability to pursue its climate efforts, but it needs to ensure none of those efforts sacrifice warfighting capability in the name of climate. This is an unnecessary strawman – the Department is not proposing to limit readiness or warfighting capability to prepare for a climate changed world. Secretary Austin has made this clear, and the climate plans published by the Army, Navy and Air Force all emphasize that the very reason the climate plans exist is to protect their ability to conduct their missions.
Even with the concerns Rep. Waltz shared, he promoted resilience, the importance of incorporating it into installation master plans, and concerns about the leverage that Russian energy supplies give it over our installations in Europe. The bottom line was that military capability, in his mind, is paramount, and any environmental efforts would only be acceptable if they supported the primary goal.
Representative John Garamendi (D-CA), the Ranking Democrat on the Subcommittee and former Chairman, embraced Mr. Waltz’s opening comments, highlighting the vulnerability to climate hazards of installations like Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. He noted that there was the potential for “divisiveness” on energy, but as long as Congress focused on cost savings, resilience, microgrids, and even increased use of small modular reactors, that there would be continued bipartisan progress.
Mr. Owens and his counterparts included a significant focus on resilience to climate threats – including the role clean energy can play in building resilience – in their opening comments. It is clear that a focus on resilience to climate risks continues to offer opportunities for bipartisan progress.
During questioning, some key topics that were raised included:
- The reliance on – and prospects for independence from – Russian energy at DoD’s European bases (Rep. Waltz);
- The dependence on Chinese-manufactured solar panels and batteries to achieve energy goals (Rep. Waltz) – with each of the respondents emphasizing the importance of bringing production of these materials and finished products to the United States;
- Exploring the use of small modular nuclear reactors for power generation (Rep. Wilson, R-SC);
- Lessons learned from achieving net-zero energy status at Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany (Rep. Sherrill, D-NJ);
- The importance of avoiding Chinese-produced batteries as we shift to EVs (Rep Scott);
- Additional emphasis on the need to ensure no Chinese materials are included in military equipment (Rep. Gimenez, R-FL); and
- Climate resilience plans (Rep. Escobar, D-TX).
In the end, what was learned?
- Concern about reliance on both Chinese minerals and Russian energy echoed through the hearing, and both will have reverberations throughout the Department’s climate efforts. As it pursues its climate plans, DoD will make more progress where it directly addresses the concerns and priorities of the committee.
- The new Chairman will need reassurance that the Department’s climate plans will augment, rather than compete with, military capability.
- Installation resilience appears to be a key priority that intersects with climate security agendas and committee concerns, and both parties will continue to support efforts to protect facilities, the energy grid, transportation routes and other critical infrastructure from climate impacts.