TCS Daily

'Apollo Program' for Energy

By James K. Glassman - November 25, 2002 12:00 AM

When business mixes with environment, public-relations stunts and cynicism abound.

Many companies talk big but do little. Others shamelessly and fruitlessly pander to extreme groups that hate the free-market system. But a few businesses - very few - get serious. They invest the money and the effort to improve the environment and, at the same time, they stick to principle: a strong belief in sound science, technology, honesty and competition.

The best example of this kind of environmental seriousness we have seen in years appeared Wednesday when Stanford University announced that ExxonMobil Corp., General Electric Co. and Schlumberger Ltd. and other sponsors were contributing about $225 million to fund a giant research project to find commercially viable, high-tech systems for energy that have the capability to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Europe's largest privately owned energy service provider, E.ON, has indicated it will also join the project, along with other academic and corporate sponsors around the world.

The Global Climate and Energy Project (G-CEP) is by far the largest corporate-sponsored research program at Stanford and one of the largest at any U.S. university. Call it an Apollo Program for energy. John Hennessy, Stanford's president, called G-CEP a "revolutionary collaboration" to transform energy-generation in "an environmentally benign fashion." Franklin M. Orr Jr. will step down as dean of Stanford's School of Earth Sciences to run the project.

ExxonMobil, the world's largest private energy company, is putting up $100 million; GE, the diversified technology and services firm, $50 million; Schlumberger, the top energy-services company, $25 million; and E.ON has signaled its intention to contribute $50 million.

Radical environmental groups were caught off-guard by the announcement, and many still appear baffled by it. "This just drives me crazy," said Bill Ahern, an energy analyst for Consumers Union, quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle. Said Alden M. Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists: "I'm somewhat skeptical.... It represents a dramatic change in [the companies'] resistance to aggressive federal and state policy on this issue."

Actually, there's no change at all. ExxonMobil executives have been very consistent. Along with 97 U.S. Senators and the President of the United States, they have opposed the Kyoto Protocol as a reckless response to what could be a genuine threat. Enacting Kyoto, with its immediate and draconian restrictions on greenhouse-gas emissions as a way to prevent possible global warming, would depress the world economy, damaging not just the U.S. but, more important, the developing nations of the world.

The best route to environmental progress for those developing nations is economic growth. Academic studies have consistently linked healthy economies to healthy environments. But Kyoto - and other steps advanced by environmental radicals and their European allies - would retard growth.

At the Johannesburg Earth Summit in September and a global climate-change meeting in New Delhi last month, the world's poorer nations lined up with the U.S. in opposing such Kyoto-style measures as targets for renewable energy. Instead, what the majority of the world wants now is access to cleaner fossil fuels to boost economic growth and provide a decent standard of living.

"Aggressive federal and state policy," not to mention global-government policy, as Meyer and groups like Greenpeace advocate, has clearly been rejected as the path to mitigating potential climate change. But the backers of G-CEP, just as clearly, see the possibility of global warming as a real threat, and they aren't just talking about it and, like many Green groups, trying to fill their coffers through scary direct-mail solicitations. They are doing something.

Their premise is simple. The Earth's surface has warmed by about one degree Fahrenheit over the past century. At the same time, manmade emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, through such activities as the burning of fossil fuels, have increased. No link has been definitely established, nor do scientists believe that the current temperature increase is detrimental (in fact, it is likely beneficial, extending growing seasons and reduced heating costs).

In addition, satellite observations just above the Earth's surface, in the lower troposphere, have found no significant warming over the past quarter-century - data that are inconsistent with a greenhouse-warming effect. Some scientists are working on the theory that surface warming is the result of solar cycles or other non-human phenomena.

Still, computer models, while crude, point to the potential for dangerously higher temperatures on earth by the end of this century. The only way to cut emissions currently is to cut energy use, with catastrophic results for living standards. But there is another way, and the supporters of G-CEP have concluded, the time has come for research - at this stage, pre-commercial - into energy technologies that emit lower levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

As Lee Raymond, ExxonMobil's chairman and CEO, said Tuesday, "Our investment in G-CEP is a demonstration of our long-held belief that successful development and global deployment of innovative, commercially viable technology is the only path that can address long-term climate-change risks while preserving and promoting prosperity of the world's economies." Exactly.

Many radical groups still can't figure out how to respond to the surprise commitment. For instance, Peter Altman of Campaign ExxonMobil told the Associated Press that the grants were "an extremely cheap attempt by ExxonMobil to buy a shield from criticism." Cheap? Hardly. This is no p.r. stunt like those BP posters you see all over. And it certainly isn't shielding ExxonMobil, GE and Schlumberger from the criticism by hard-core Greens.

More reasonable responses to G-CEP have come from academics. Paul Ehrlich, the Stanford scientist and environmentalist, was quoted by the San Jose Mercury News as saying, "You can absolutely trust people like Lynn Orr [G-CEP's director]... to not let the fact that it's oil-company money funding them change their results one iota." Stephen Schneider, a biologist active in Green-movement activities, said of the project, "I'm pleased."

Seriousness may be a scarce commodity these days, but most people know it when they see it, and G-CEP is deadly serious.

The political and social reality is that the developing nations of the world, quite reasonably, want to reach a decent standard of living. The U.S., Europe and Japan used fossil fuels to get where they are today, and it would be unfair, even imperialistic, to deny abundant energy to emerging nations. So the goal is to present these countries with better, cleaner options than they have now.

"We believe that real change will not occur unless it is based on attractive choices," said Frank B. Sprow, vice president of safety, health and environment at ExxonMobil. That's true, and G-CEP is an important, intelligent step toward developing those choices.



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