Big Oil Goes Green for Real

Article excerpt

Byline: Rana Foroohar

Remember back in 2001 when BP went "Beyond Petroleum"? It was a brilliant marketing campaign, but it had less to do with changing the company's business model than positioning Lord John Browne as the Teflon oil executive. All but a tiny fraction of BP's revenue came, and still comes, from oil. So how should we take the spate of new green announcements from the world's major oil firms? In July, ExxonMobil announced big plans to grow green algae to fuel cars; last week, Chevron unveiled the world's largest carbon-sequestration project in Australia; and in recent months, Valero, Marathon, and Sunoco carried out a series of acquisitions that resulted in Big Oil controlling 7 percent of the U.S. ethanol business.

The list goes on. And this time it's the real deal. It's not just that these projects involve bigger money, which will grow exponentially if new technologies work. That's still peanuts for oil majors, which put only 4 percent of their total 2008 profits into alternative-energy investment. It's that companies are actually beginning to think about alternatives not just as a tool for greenwashing (throw up a few solar panels here, sponsor a conference on wind energy there) but as real businesses that might one day turn real profits--or at least help make fossil-fuel production more profitable. The catalyst is that governments are moving to force industry to cut carbon emissions, creating a new "long-term regulatory reality" that favors alternative energy, says PFC Energy chairman J. Robinson West. Meanwhile, President Obama's green-stimulus ef-forts and China's massive investment in alternatives have created a serious market for green technologies.

The fact that nations like Russia and Venezuela are pushing out big oil companies also gives CEOs an incentive to consider green alternatives. So does the fact that oil companies are among the world's biggest energy users, and will ultimately need to offset emissions. "I believe the large integrated oil firms will eventually become major players--perhaps even the dominant players--in alternative energy," says Don Paul, a former Chevron executive who now runs the University of Southern California's Energy Institute. …