When I look at oil company profit reports–which will soon reveal truly rabid profit increases in the 1st quarter of 2008–I just ignore the line on "alternative energy" spending. That’s because it is often the opposite of renewable energy. Mother Jones magazine’s latest issue has the perfect description of why:
"Across the board, the companies that control fossil fuels have begun
to respond to rising concern about global warming with what amounts to
a three-point strategy: First, make small overtures toward developing
renewable energy, and milk them for maximum PR value. Second, invest
more generously in carbon-based "alternative energy" that gets passed
off as green. Third, invoke the goal of energy independence to pump,
mine, transport, and sell more and more of the same old fuels to an
"One of the slipperiest tactics involves redefining what constitutes
clean energy. In a 2006 report, the oil-industry-friendly Institute for
Energy Research said that U.S. oil and gas companies had invested $98
billion in "emerging energy technologies" in North America from 2000 to
2005. But the vast majority of this funding went to develop "frontier
hydrocarbons"—new, often filthy methods of producing more oil and gas.
In fact, a report from the Center for American Progress found that
between 2001 and 2007, a period of unprecedented profits, the top five
private oil companies spent an average of just one-half of one percent
of total profits on renewable fuels. (BP and Shell topped the list at
1.2 percent; ExxonMobil occupied the bottom at 0."
The piece is largely about why the coal industry’s new greenwashing project, "carbon sequestration" (injecting coal’s CO2 emissions back into the ground) is both largely mythical and, if achieved, may be deadly dangerous. To wit:
"In addition to being difficult and expensive, [carbon sequestration] is potentially dangerous: In 1986, an eruption of CO2
from a naturally occurring pocket under a Cameroon lake bed instantly
suffocated nearly 1,800 people; leaks from an underground storage site
could be likewise deadly. "That stuff is crazy," says Tyson Slocum, who
heads Public Citizen’s energy project. "Totally unproven. Stuffing
hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the ground—there
are huge liabilities."
"For this reason, Slocum says, energy companies are pushing to
transfer as much legal and financial responsibility as possible to the
federal government. Last April industry lawyer Kipp Coddington of
Alston & Bird testified before a Senate committee that if the
industry was going to invest billions of dollars in carbon
sequestration, the related risks had to be "identified, quantified, and
minimized." As Slocum puts it, "Once underground, [the CO2] becomes the responsibility of the American people."
That’s like government handing doctors and hospitals a free pass to commit malpractice. Oops, I forgot–that’s what legislation curbing medical lawsuits already amounts to.
I didn’t get time yesterday to post on a House select committee’s grilling of executives from the major oil companies, but as the chairman, Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, pointedly said, "there will be many more." (If you’ve got a question you’d like to have posed to Big Oil, please post it here as a comment or send it along to email@example.com ).
The oil guys didn’t give an inch, defending their record profits and even threatening to reduce "investments needed to continue safeguarding safeguarding U.S. energy security" if Congress dares reduce their tax subsidies to fund renewable energy development. (Exxon V.P. J.S. Simon, in his opening remarks).
The committee members’ attitudes split right along party lines, which isn’t surprising. But not even the harsher critics did much follow-up on the many evasions and exaggerations. BP’s top U.S. executive, Robert Malone, made a big deal of his company’s investments in solar and wind power, for instance. Yet BP, which once greenly branded itself as "Beyond Petroleum" appears likely to sell off its whole renewable energy division, to boost shareholder value.
Exxon did take flak for spending only $100 million on renewables, and that only on research, compared to last year’s $40.6 billion profit. But most of the committee members seemed to think $100 million was Exxon’s yearly expenditure. Nope, it’s only $10 million a year, on a 10-year project at Stanford. And even that comes with tight, controlling strings attached.
Chevron, Shell and Conoco made lots of green noises about their small renewable-energy projects, but weren’t really pressed as to exactly why their retail gas stations don’t sell renewable fuels, particularly E85. (Here’s the reason: Chevron and friends make it forbiddingly hard and expensive to do so.)
Of course, since the oil execs weren’t sworn to the truth, why bother to tell the whole of it?
Here’s hoping that future hearings will feature sworn testimony, that members will use this first session to hone their follow-up skills, and that one of these days the Senate will get around to voting for the House-passed bill to take back some of those oil subsidies. One thing this hearing did prove beyond a shadow of a doubt is that Big Oil isn’t going to turn renewable energy into a competitor to oil.]]>
There are days when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger seems to just blurt the last cockamamie idea he heard from a powerful pal. So it is with the Gov’s new enthusiasm for nuclear power plants in California. Before he goes further on his new fad, Schwarzenegger needs a trip to Florida, where nuclear efforts lately have been nothing but trouble.
As reported by the Sacramento Bee, Schwarzenegger recently talked with John Bryson, the CEO of Edison International and a fan of nuclear. Then Schwarzenegger took his new enthusiasm to an economic conference last week in Santa Barbara, saying California has to get past "scare tactics" that "frighten everyone that we’re going to have another [nuclear plant] blowup and all of those things."
The governor touted nuclear’s zero carbon emissions. He seemed to have forgotten the state’s abundant and zero-emission wind and solar resources, which come without the astronomical construction costs and ultimate decommissioning costs, and the pesky lack of any long-term storage solution for high-level nuclear waste.
Before his next speech, Schwarzenegger should at check out the planned nuclear facility near Tampa, Florida, which has tripled its projected cost to $17 million before the permits have even been pulled. No problem, from the power company perspective, because a new state law lets the utility start billing customers an extra 4% on their power bills now, even though the new generators wouldn’t produce a watt of power until 2016 (even on the builder’s own rosy projections).
With any nuclear plant, there are security problems. And the leakage issues.
And in Florida, the millions who lost power during a heat wave three weeks ago. One of the state’s existing nuclear plants suddenly went down because of a power outage into the plant.
Oddly, none of the news reports on the problems of both old and new nuclear power in Florida mention the state’s huge solar potential, even though solar is wildly popular among Floridians.
California Edison would no doubt love to build a couple of nuclear plants pre-paid by their ratepayers. But the governor shouldn’t be swallowing Edison’s line.
"…goes into the pension and retirement accounts of ordinary citizens. When Exxon pays a dividend, that money goes to pay for the mortgages and oxygen tanks and in-home care of lots of elderly Americans."
With which oxygen-sucking pensioners is Stein hanging out? As Naked Capitalism blogger Yves Smith notes, most of "us" don’t own shares in Exxon and barely half of Americans have pensions. I’d add that retirees outside Stein’s circle are not clipping Exxon dividend coupons, they’re putting on a fake grin and greeting shoppers at Wal-Mart.
Stein also argues:
"…after expenses, the money hauled in by Exxon Mobil and other companies like it goes vastly more toward exploration and finding new ways of delivering oil and gas to us slobs in our cars than it does to well-heeled oil executives."
Wrong comparison, Ben. What chokes those of us paying $3.50 a gallon for gasoline, and seeing $4.00 around the corner, is that Exxon spends more tens of billions to to buy back its own stock (About $30 billion in 2006 alone) than toward exploration or modernizing aged, ureliable refineries. Or investing in any kind of non-oil future.
Or that Exxon has spent years denying the science of global warming and punish those who dared call it a fact–even getting the White House to do its bidding.
Then again, that fits with Stein’s latest project. The same Ben who did such a great turn as the most boring teacher in the world in "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off" is now the host and star of "Expelled," a religious-right documentary version of Michael Moore (without the sense of humor), on the suffering of academics and teachers who demand the right to teach the updated version of creationism, intelligent design, and deny evolution, in the classroom. See the trailer and Ben’s blog … and the New York Times story on alleged deceptive tactics by the producers–and Ben.
The movie’s promotional slogan is that "Big Science Has Expelled Smart New Ideas From the Classroom." Just like Big Oil expelled science from the global warming debate, maybe. And like Ben Stein expelled inconvenient truths in favor of hugs for Exxon.
Chevron’s PR whizzes pulled out the stops in 2006 and early 2007 to promote the oil company’s investment in a Texas biodiesel producer. Chevron made sure that every energy reporter and much of the public knew about Chevron’s dazzling green commitment, a "22% stake" in the startup, Galveston Bay Biodiesel. Then Chevron pulled out the rug last December. It now appears that Chevron kept up the PR blitz even as it was getting ready flee.
Lawsuits were of course filed, and are finally shedding a little light on who said what about who, and when.
As reported in the Galveston Daily News ("Texas" Oldest Newspaper’), Chevron accused Galveston Bay Biodiesel of "gross mismanagement." Yet it also accused the company of denying Chevron seats on the board of directors and trying to "usurp" Chevron’s influence over the project. Did Chevron want power, or did it want out? Or did it just want an excuse to look better as it turned its back? Chevron is also trying to take the lawsuits out of the public eye, demanding they go to private arbitration.
The operators of the biodiesel plant say they’ve found new capital, they’re still running (despite a down market for biofuels) and that Chevron used its
participation in the project to convince shareholders, customers and
financial analysts that “it was farsighted enough to invest in alternative
On of the more interesting tidbits is Chevron’s assertion that the alleged mismanagement "began to come to light" in the spring of 2007. Yet on May 29, Chevron issued a press release about the plant’s opening, preening over its commitment:
"Chevron’s investment is a tangible manifestation of the company’s
strategy to invest in renewable energy technologies," said Donald Paul,
vice president and chief technology officer, Chevron. "Biofuels are
playing an increasingly important role in diversifying our nation’s
energy portfolio. With growing demand, the nation needs all the sources
of energy to contribute to supply. Our involvement with BioSelect
Galveston will allow us to apply our world-class capabilities in
transportation fuel manufacturing and distribution while expanding our
knowledge and experience in large-scale biofuels production."
The release named the politicians on hand including Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas, the largest recipient of oil industry money in Congress during the last Senate election cycle.
If Chevron was already looking for the exits last spring, it had no hesitation about wringing the last bucket of greenwash from the May 29 ribbon-cutting.
You’d think that a company making nearly $41 billion in yearly profit in 2007 would be profligate in its charitable giving. We don’t know yet what Exxon Mobil’s 2007 total was, but the company issues a yearly feel-good report on “community contributions.” The 2006 document says Exxon gave away $138 million in 2006, as it made its previous record profit of $39.1 billion. That comes to less than four-tenths of one percent of its profit, and about one-third of the $398 million that Exxon gave Chairman Lee Raymond as he retired in 2006.
Since regular citizens calculate charitable giving on the basis of their yearly pre-tax, pre-expenses revenue, known as income, add another zero to the front of that percentage: less than four one-hundredths of one percent of revenue given away.
But did Exxon really give even that pittance to what we’d think of as charity? A closer looks reveals dollars spent on the quirky, the murky and the blatantly self-serving.
Exxon’s “public policy” category draws perennial scorn, going as it does to neocon nonprofits that in return defend Exxon’s profits, its spurning of renewable energy and its efforts to deny global warming. The usual culprits include the American Enterprise Institute ($240,000, plus $55,000 in joint projects with the Brookings Institution) , Heritage Foundation and Pacific Research Institute. One of the bigger line items is $115,000 to the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, sponsor of a global meeting of climate change deniers coming up March 2-4 in New York
One of the supporters of this year’s March 2-4 Heartland meeting in New York is The Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change. This Tempe, AZ., group, which also received $10,000 from Exxon, sells videos on its website touting CO2 pollution as “an amazingly effective aerial fertilizer” and publishes studies denying the science of global warming.
Exxon last year said it would stop directly funding the authors of global warming denial articles who then popped up in newspaper Op-Ed pages as well as at Heartland-type conferences. It said nothing about pulling funding from the organizations that also sponsor the deniers.
The rest of Exxon’s contributions get less mainstream attention, though they are a window on how it operates as a corporate citizen.
Millions of dollars under Exxon’s "global health" “education” and "environment" categories are lumped under an unitemized line of foreign payments to unidentified NGOs, plus: "[S]ocial bonus projects required under agreements with host governments by Exxon Mobil Corporation, its divisions and affiliates; and, ExxonMobil’s share of community expenditures paid by joint ventures operated by other companies." Without itemization, it’s fair to consider this category as "dollars to despots".
Exxon operates in partnership with notoriously corrupt and often violent regimes in Kazakhstan, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria and Angola, among others. "Social bonus projects" could mean anything from Swiss spa treatment for the prime minister to arms used to extend civil conflict.
The company’s reported contributions to global health total $19 million. Exxon’s report itemizes less than $4 million to U.S. organizations, mostly near its Irving, Texas, base; the other $15 million benefited "communities outside the United States" and nearly $4 million went directly to overseas groups and governments, with no itemization.
How about the $6.5 million "environment" category? There as well, about $2 million of the donations can’t be accounted for, because they’re under the foreign giving footnote. Most of the itemized contributions are in the tens of thousands, to mainstream nature programs. The only seven-digit contribution category, $1.3 million to "tiger conservation" was puzzling for a moment. But does the phrase "put a tiger in your tank" ring a bell? It’s the 1960’s slogan of Esso (Renamed Exxon in 1972). The only contribution to climate change study is $200,000 to MIT’s Global Change Program.
Exxon’s "civic and community giving" of $40.9 million is mostly bland and conservative: Scouting, Habitat for Humanity, zoos, job development–but what’s that $300,000 to the "Qatar Foundation Social Development Fund"? Oil hub Qatar is filthy rich, with a per capita income projected for 2007 http://www.ameinfo.com/143867.html at nearly $71,000—about twice the U.S per capita income. It’s reminiscent of the $1.5 million Exxon donated to a Saudi Arabian health research project in 2005.
Higher education gifts, at $35 million, are thinly spread around, $10,000 here, a few hundred thousand there, much of it to business schools and (petroleum) engineering programs. The single seven-figure gift is $2.5 million, given in the name of former Exxon chairman Lee Raymond (remember his nearly $400 million retirement package?). It’s to the little-known Teagle Foundation, which promotes "liberal education" with a trace of religiosity.
Ah, but here’s the click: The Teagle Foundation traces to Walter Teagle, first president of Standard Oil of New Jersey, which became Esso, which became Exxon. Teagle, after he was implicated in a scandal involving Standard Oil’s alliance with the German industrial giant I.G. Farben during World War II, established his foundation for "the betterment of mankind."
The K-12 education category, $18 million, drops $8 million into the un-itemized foreign contributions asterisk. Much of the domestic giving is to science teaching, including an Exxon-fueled curriculum project at the National Science Teachers Association. The NSTA gave Exxon a prize for "commitment to science education" in 2003, but in 2006 refused an offer of 50,000 free copies of Al Gore’s "An Inconvenient Truth" from its producer, Laurie David. David then ably pointed out the partnerships that made NSTA a classroom distributor of Big Oil’s viewpoint in return for corporate contributions.
Exxon is a global Scrooge, all right, but it’s a Scrooge with an agenda.]]>
The prestigious Center for Science in the Public Interest has joined us in warning of the dangers Big Oil money poses to university research. In a report issued today CSPI says American universities may be jeopardizing their academic integrity by giving oil, gas, and other polluting industries unprecedented influence over the research those companies fund on campus.
CSPI surveyed nine major universities that have become part of “Big Oil U”. The schools are UC Berkeley, Stanford, UC Davis, Georgia Institute of Technology, Princeton, MIT, Rice, Caltech, and Carnegie Mellon.
Merrill Goozner, director of CSPI’s Integrity in Science Project, had this comment about the companies:
“It’s a cheap subterfuge for carbon-emitting companies. They get the prestige of associating themselves with major respected universities, yet can control the direction of research and get first rights to intellectual property while delaying any finding that doesn’t help the bottom line. Meanwhile, the p.r. blitz surrounding these programs masks the fact that the carbon-emitting industries actually are spending much less on research and development than they did 10 or 15 years ago.”
Just before the CSPI study was distributed came word last week that Big Oil U has gone international. MIT announced a $50 million research deal with the giant Italian oil and energy company ENI.
CSPI recommends that universities accepting Big Oil money adopt policies to protect their autonomy and preserve their researchers’ autonomy. They include:
When are some of the nation’s finest universities going to realize that they are selling their academic souls in pursuit of corporate dollars? Who will provide trustworth research when the agenda is set by narrow corporate interests?
My greenwash antenna is waving madly. GM chief exec Rick Wagoner made a splash at the Detroit auto show earlier this week, announcing an investment in cellulosic ethanol. He offered no dollar amount, no time frame, no hard promises.
A cynic would say it’s just a way to quiet critics of GM’s big gift in the federal energy bill: an extended gas-mileage allowance on its E85 flex-fuel vehicles, which rarely run on actual ethanol. It’s also a way to take public focus away from the Chevy Volt, a mega-hype whose actual production is–when? 2010? 2011? Never?.
At least the Reuters story on the PR-generated announcement included a couple of caveats up high:
GM said it would not disclose the size of the stake or how much it had invested in Coskata.
"Cellulosic ethanol has a significant amount of potential," said David Friedman, a research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "But we’ll have to wait until GM releases the data behind this and they actually launch production."
The media needs an even bigger dose of squinty-eyed doubt about this chest-beating on green fuels by Big Auto and Big Oil.
Chevron got a raft of nice stories in 2006 and last year when it "invested" an unstated amount in a biodiesel plant near Galveston. Then, oops, last month Chevron pulled out of the deal. That very quiet announcement got almost no notice beyond the Houston Chronicle.
Costkata, the company that GM says it’s backing, touts a promising technique to produce ethanol from waste biomass for "$1 a gallon." Good for them, if they actually build the plant, make the ethanol in commercial amounts and find a place to sell it.
GM says it’s going to campaign for more retail outlets for E85. Right. I’m sure BP and Shell are perking up their ears.
Exxon says it has a great new invention that will put more powerful batteries in hybrid electric cars. Stop the applause until Exxon gives it away and Toyota puts it on the street.
GM itself has spent at least tens of millions of dollars on a sunny, back-patting ad campaign for the Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid that doesn’t exist (though you’d hardly notice that small fact from the ad copy).
I’d like to believe everything Mr. Wagoner said about EB5 this week, but Santa Claus has left the building.
My earlier doubts about Chevron’s ballyhooed investment in a Galveston biodiesel plant were too mild. After garnering a bunch of admiring news stories, including in the New York Times, Chevron is now being sued by the plant’s operators for bailing out on the investment and failing to provide the expert help it promised. It’s to the credit of the Houston Post’s Brett Clanton that he broke the lawsuit story, since he was among those reporting the original investment. The San Francisco Chronicle at least ran the Clanton story, but there’s been little other mention of the lawsuit outside the Houston media.
That’s the whole point of greenwash, isn’t it? Chevron made a very big PR deal out of the biodiesel plant, issuing at least three detailed press releases about it in 2006 and early 2007. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas (She’s the biggest recipient in Congress of oil company contributions) attended the opening of the plant, assuring good news coverage. Chevron’s 2006 "corporate responsibility" report cites the biodiesel plant and it’s mentioned in passing in two other press releases.
Yet there’s not a peep about its withdrawal from the project or the lawsuit on the Chevron website. That’s how the PR professionals do it, but this greenwashing technique is also why the public doesn’t trust the oil industry or its lavish media campaigns.
Shell and BP are under fire for talking green and doing the opposite. Britain’s Guardian newspaper has the story.
"Shell, the oil company that recently trumpeted its commitment to a
low carbon future by signing a pre-Bali conference communique, has
quietly sold off most of its solar business.
"The move, taken with
rival BP’s decision last week to invest in the world’s dirtiest oil
production in Canada’s tar sands, indicates that Big Oil might be
giving up its flirtation with renewables and going back to its roots.
and BP are among the biggest producers of greenhouse gases in the
world, but both have been keen to paint themselves green through a
series of clean fuel initiatives."
Extraction of tar sands, shale oil deposits and other heavy petroleums lays waste to the land atop the widely dispersed deposits. Perhaps even worse, extraction requires vast amounts of water, which is polluted and usually wasted, depleting aquifers for miles around. Oil companies keep saying they’re on the verge of water-saving pinpoint techniques for extraction, but it’s’ what Silicon Valley used to call vaporware: continually right around the corner. Sort of like that other oxymoron, clean coal.
BP barely tries to defend the environmental cost of shale oil. Here’s the company line from an earlier story:
"BP accepted that tar sand operations were energy-intensive and would
increase its carbon footprint but said it needed to find new supplies
to meet increasing demand for oil products. ‘Someone is going to
develop these resources and we will bring our standards to bear and
will be developing them as best as possible,’ a spokesman said. "
Here, from Greenpeace Canada, is a more specific description of the unacceptable costs of extracting oil from tar sands. If BP sees tar sands as its future, it should join General Motors in the dinosaur pile. And no one should ever believe its preachy green slogans again.
Shell argues that it just isn’t making money on solar and will instead increase work on other renewable sources of energy. But if the company is giving up on something as simple and immediate as solar, that sounds like an excuse to delay any real action on better alternatives.