Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Ventnor-Exxon partnership on biofuel

Geneticist Craig Ventnor and former climate denialist kingpin Exxon-Mobil are to invest $600 million in commercial development of algae-based biofuels. This according to the Guardian, at

This is serious renewable energy and climate change news. We've been aware of the potential of algae-based fuels for several years. One major attraction is that there would be no great need to change the distribution system. And, as with all biofuels, if CO2 uptake is matched to CO2 output, there would be net zero atmospheric carbon.

Actually, if the US federal government actually wanted to sequester some carbon, they could do so this way, by making more biofuel than the market demanded and storing it in terrestrial geological storage, such as the salt caverns used for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Assuming the Exxon-made algae fuel was as stable as the various crude oils currently stored, that is, and that there are sufficient new salt dome sites available or some other sequestration geology could be worked out.

If the new biofuel wasn't stable or couldn't be made so, we could just store light crude and use biofuels instead, offsetting demand for crude, and preventing the release of the CO2 from the crude. This second choice could never actually remove carbon from the atmosphere, like the first could, but it would reduce additional emissions and act as a buffer on carbon dioxide levels.

Not only would sequestration of biofuel be a good climate change maneuver, it would be a good strategic maneuver too. The US, and the democratic west in general, needs a store of petroeleum-type fuel for defense, on the off-chance that our natural petroleum-owning friends in places like Russia, Burma, Venezuala, Sudan, Nigeria, Iran, and their ilk turn out, as seems already to be the case, to not be as fond of us, and our strange habit of deciding leaders by voting, as they perhaps should.

Not only do we have the voting habit, but (at least when characters like Dick Cheney are not in charge) we also respect human rights a good deal more than most of these petrostates, and indeed even the ones that seem to like us, like the Saudis. Unfathomable, I guess, why you would do this when you could plump for the civic excitement of public executions, or the stimulating effect of making twitter contact with the west illegal. Another strange habit.

Not only would it be good to have extra fuel for defense, but larger stores would give us a better ability to stabilize oil prices.

(Dear Pentagon: If you happen to read my blog, and you probably don't, you can have this whole biofuel sequestration idea for free. You're welcome.)

The only thing I don't like about this development is that it's a project of Exxon Mobil, who doesn't deserve to have any advantages in the coming green energy economy after they funded the climate denialist campagn for so long. But their board has changed hands several times since the bad old days when Rex Tillerson said, and I quote,

"...There is really nothing ExxonMobil can bring to that whole biofuels issue. We don't see a direct role for ourselves with today's technology."


So the new initiative represents quite a corporate change of heart as well as one of the more blatant corporate gainsaying events of recent years.

Never say never, Rexy, old boy.

I imagine that Exxon will continue to fund organizations that are not quite outright denialists but close, as they do with their current support of the Heritage Foundation or the National Center for Policy Analysis, proved by the Guardian earlier this year.

What is amazing about this is how a publicly traded corporation can get away with it, and so much of it, for so long.

It seems a lot of us prefer not to look at, or hold our noses when we look at, what goes in our 401 and 403Ks and other mutual-fund type retirement investments.

It will interesting to see what the conservative wonks at Heritage make of Exxon's foray into biofuel greenery. Betrayal? Or an opportunity for spin?

And it will be ironic, after all this, if Exxon is the corporation that nails down a viable sequestration technology. Like I said, on past performance they do not deserve any part of the new green economy. But a corporation is really just a figment of our economic imagination -- the ever-shifting sum of a lot of businesses and shareholder's dollars, not an unchanging individual corpus. Despite Exxon's attempts to hold tight to an ideology as if it were an individual, the market has clearly whittled away at those efforts.

By the way, the world's leading Exxon-watcher on behalf of climate change is Bob Ward, of the LSE and the Royal Society.

Thanks, Bob. And thanks to the Royal Society for taking a stand.

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