In the heat of battle, troops may not have time to think about making the most energy-efficient moves. That's where Sharon Burke comes in.
From her office wedged within one of the innermost rings of the Pentagon, the soft-spoken 44-year-old security analyst is tasked with weaving energy considerations into the Defense Department's war-fighting strategy. DOD officials say the push is about improving capability and saving lives lost accompanying fuel through war zones, not making environmental strides.
Burke, however, sees the two areas as linked. "The department needs to cut its energy use for its own reasons -- for the way we do business, for the ability to protect the country, and cutting energy use for climate change is part of that," she said in an interview with ClimateWire.
Burke is the Pentagon's first director of operational energy plans and programs, or, as she called herself during her first public appearance on the job last month -- the "dope," riffing off her DOEEP acronym.
The Senate confirmed Burke to the job in June, after she came under initial fire from Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe (R) for her apparent support of a 2007 law that bars federal agencies from buying alternative fuels that have higher greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels (ClimateWire, March 25).
The energy security expert grew up on tales of her father's Marine Corps service and has spent most of her adult life bouncing between State Department, DOD and think tank jobs.
In her newest role, Burke sees her responsibility as split into three camps: shrinking energy needs in current operations, better incorporating fuel efficiency criteria into decisions about what equipment to buy, and factoring energy into DOD's overall war-fighter fabric.
Achieving those goals could make a sizable dent in the carbon footprint of DOD.
Consider the "operational" energy required to perform tasks like ferrying gas from Pakistan through the Hindu Kush and keep legions of generators humming at forward operating bases. Such activities amount to some 70 percent of all energy used by the Department of Defense. And DOD racks up a hefty energy bill as the nation's single largest energy consumer -- using more than 1 percent of the nation's total.
New war lines, new energy lines
Burke has until December 21 to present Congress with a blueprint for how she will lighten that DOD fuel load. For a department that has never before looked at operational energy as its own entity and is notoriously splintered with its own specific plans and obstacles for each service, this will be a significant undertaking.
Her office walls are bare -- save for a DOD organizational chart -- perhaps underscoring the challenge of developing a crosscutting strategy for the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.
Still, Burke says that the bureaucracy in the department is not what she sees as her greatest obstacle. "It's not so much that I see a roof full of stovepipes that need to be knocked down." Her office will be acting as "an integrator and a coordinator and have an oversight function," she said.
The initial hurdle, according to Burke, is defining the challenge and getting more detailed information on which missions, bases and equipment are most responsible for running up the combat fuel tally.
"You know, they've never separated out operational energy as a concern. The very act of standing up in office and pushing people into those conversations or pulling them -- inviting them into it -- has been really important," she said.
Two years ago, the Defense Science Board Task Force on DOD Energy Strategy blasted DOD for failing to achieve better energy savings in combat zones and pointed to the lack of senior leadership within DOD on the issue as a central cause. Congress tried to fill that void in the fiscal 2009 Defense Authorization Act by creating the DOEPP position.