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U.S. Climate Lawsuits Endanger Military and U.S. National Security Interests

Robert Harward is a retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral and a former Deputy Commander of the United States Central Command. (Robert Harward)

All opinion articles are the opinion of the author and not necessarily of American Military News. If you are interested in submitting an Op-Ed, please email [email protected].

For decades, the United States has stood as a champion for global order, working to extend democratic values while holding the line against authoritarianism. As the world’s most powerful military, our strength is inextricably linked to a stable energy supply that fuels our aircraft, tanks, and ships, as well as those our allies, around the world.

Presidential administrations – Democratic and Republican – have understood the national security significance of reliable energy, which is the result of a long history of cooperation between the private sector and our federal government. 

In recent years, however, some local officials in municipalities, counties, and states have targeted some energy producers with meritless climate lawsuits, which can undercut this longstanding relationship. Places like New York City, Baltimore, and Boulder, Colorado claim these energy companies are liable for developing and selling oil and gas, leading to climate change. And while climate change is a clear priority that we must address, attempting to weaponize our court system to fight energy companies isn’t the answer.

By seeking billions of dollars in damages, these lawsuits attempt to restrict domestic energy development and make energy more expensive for our military, families and businesses alike. These plaintiffs want to use state courts to achieve this outcome, a gambit that won’t stop climate change, and worse, empowers a patchwork of municipalities to make high stakes decisions that can negatively impact America’s national security.

At the same time, these municipalities completely ignore the fact that climate change is a globally-occurring phenomenon, whereby these lawsuits absolve some of the world’s biggest emitters. Peterson Institute for International Economics fellow Gary Clyde Hufbauer notes that the localities aren’t going after our adversaries’ energy producers. He wrote, “U.S. public officials championing these lawsuits neglect to point any blame on foreign state-owned energy companies like Russia’s Gazprom, Saudi Arabia’s Aramco, and Venezuela’s Petroleos de Venezuela. Yet these foreign companies’ fuels are far more carbon-intensive and more harmful in the global fight against climate change.”

State and local officials seeking to hold our energy producers liable is counterproductive.  In the context of the military, it’s impossible to have all Defense Department assets run entirely on wind, solar or nuclear – we’ll always need some level of reserve power. 

That’s why the military and the federal government have been consistently present in the sale of domestic oil and gas supplies; in many cases, the oil and gas companies have worked at the direction of the federal government. Since World War I, companies have produced oil and gas for land vehicles, warplanes, and vessels, often under the direction and control of our top military leaders. As former Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs Mike Mullen said, “energy security needs to be one of the first things we think about, before we deploy another solider, before we build another ship or plane, and before we buy or fill another rucksack.” That’s one reason Congress enacted the Federal Officer Removal Statute to protect companies that provide products and services at the direction of federal officials. The statute keeps cases involving these federal contractors in federal courts.

Despite the clear intent of the Federal Officer Removal Statute, proponents of climate litigation argue these cases belong in state court, where they can overtake our national interests. This doesn’t follow. This statute shields companies that work under the direction of the federal government by making sure allegations made against them are heard in federal court. To be clear, the statute doesn’t offer a blanket of protection, it just means a local court cannot take advantage of the federal government and its contractors by imposing liability against companies working in support of federally-directed interests.

Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairmen Mike Mullen and Richard Myers referenced in their amicus brief to the Supreme Court regarding Hoboken’s lawsuit, “Any claims arising from the historic production and sale of domestic oil and gas necessarily implicate the Federal Government’s historical and current role in this industry, including the extensive history of federal laws, contracts, and leases that supported and controlled significant portions of our Nation’s fuel supply. To this day, the Federal Government contracts with private oil companies for massive amounts of special military fuel.”

And today, energy manufacturers are answering President Biden’s directive to export natural gas to our allies in Europe. For example, the U.S. has been able to respond to Russia’s chokehold of the European energy market by increasing shipments of liquefied natural gas and crude oil by 137 percent and 38 percent, respectively. Climate lawsuits going after America’s energy producers could undermine these efforts.

We can facilitate meaningful climate solutions and protect our vested national security interests – these objectives aren’t mutually exclusive. Climate lawsuits endanger the energy production that fuels our military, allies, and civilians, and wrongly places the blame on a handful of producers. They are imprudent and should be dismissed.

Robert Harward is a retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral and a former Deputy Commander of the United States Central Command