August 21, 2009

BP Invests in Biofuel Research - Are Oil Firms Coming Around?

By Sarah Harper

In the midst of certain lobbyists' underhanded attempts to prevent climate change legislation, one oil giant, BP, has joined the biofuel-research-by-oil-firms club. BP recently invested $10 million in a joint project investigating new techniques for converting sugar into biodiesel. reports that, according to BP Biofuels Chief Executive Philip New, the project will allow BP to deliver sustainable, economic, and scalable biodiesel supplies. Granted, this could easily be "we're sustainable - really!" rhetoric, or a cursory attempt to appear environmentally concerned. After all, who really knows a corporation's true intentions? If BP is sincere, though, its research could contribute significantly to the evolution of a sustainable energy mentality. Yet could investment in biofuels by a well-known oil firm undo the economic and environmental damage of years of investing in unclean fuels? And could BP's investment be a sign that oil firms in general are starting to come around?

Last week, BP signed a partnership with Martek Biosciences Corporation, a fermentation technology firm that develops healthcare products derived from algae. Together, the companies will develop a large-scale, cost-effective project involving the use of algae to convert sugars into lipids, which can then be converted into biofuels. (Importantly, this approach is distinct from those that use algae as feedstock to create biofuel.) The project is expected to help BP reach its goal of identifying sustainable biofuels that do not draw on food crops and use bio-leftovers (e.g. sugar cane waste, energy grasses, and wood chips) for fermentation.As for true intentions, the project is, at least, not BP's first biofuel endeavor, and it is part of a greater systemic approach. (BP apparently has "other strategic choices for biofuels," according to the BusinessGreen report, and it provides solar energy to consumers. Moreover, New described the project as "part of our approach of integrating sugar cane and lingocellulosic biofuels with advanced technologies to produce products with a wide range of uses.")

Interestingly, though BP also has its own definition of sustainability: "the capacity to endure as a group" by renewing assets, creating and delivering better products and services that meet the evolving needs of society, and contributing to a sustainable environment. Vague terms, indeed. And, its stated strategy and techniques are somewhat contradictory: while it seeks to produce energy in an affordable, secure, and environmentally non-destructive way, it does so by participating "across the hydrocarbon value chain" ( "producing more fossil fuel resources" while somehow "transitioning to a low-carbon future").

In conclusion, the answers to my questions in the first paragraph are probably gray-greenish in hue. BP is not a renewable energy firm, and, as such, whatever sustainable techniques it has are invariably mixed in with unsustainable ones. And, environmentally speaking, the damage is already done. I guess the answers boil down to issues of expectations and perfectionism: how high up on the green scale does a company have to rate to get a sustainability check mark, and can we be satisfied with a "baby steps" approach to achieving sustainability? (I speculated on this topic in a previous post on Greenpeace's recognition of McDonalds' efforts to go green.)

What are your thoughts on the matter?

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