Oil Ought to Give Clean Energy a Shot

For the past couple of years, I’ve been imagining this scenario: What if an oil company ventured big time into solar, wind, biofuels, hydrogen and wave energy?

Imagine the public goodwill such a move would engender. It also offers strategic investment diversity. Communications teams could play up the green angle, talk up the environmental benefits and start referring to their employer as a full-spectrum energy company.

The ex-journalists in the press office could start firing off straight-forward missives. Something like: “We support clean energy but realize we must pursue a balanced approach. Oil will be with us for generations, but we must use it wisely, taking advantage of energy efficiency and renewables whenever possible.”

Is it far-fetched? Certainly. But who better? tossncook BP had 2011 third quarter earnings of $5.33 billion, a decline of 3.7 percent from the previous year. Royal Dutch Shell earned $7 billion in the same period, double from a year earlier. And Chevron topped them both with $7.8 billion, more than double from a year earlier.

A Chevron allocation of half its earnings to solar and wind would rock Wall Street.

Oil for renewables

Clean energy won’t happen by itself. Like many of the up-and-coming energy sources that came before, it needs favorable government policy, zmiiv investment and dedicated research and development.

The oil industry can relate. Heck, listen to any politician talk about curtailing regulation and opening up opportunity for exploratory drilling or shale oil extraction. “Everybody needs a little help,” or so says the grime-encrusted sign the homeless guy holds up near the mall.

The oil industry could easily reframe the good science/bad science debate regarding climate change now raging in political circles. Major investment into solar like the deal by Google and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts to buy four photovoltaic power plants near Sacramento from Recurrent Energy could make a substantive dent. hoodpay

It’s unlikely. Probably too risky. Oil industry types like to stick to a business model with a certain payoff.

Soviet-era parable

Big Oil’s unwillingness to bend reminds me of a parable I heard in the former Soviet Union a couple years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In June 1991 while working for the now-defunct Anchorage Times, photographer Doug Van Reeth and I hire an older woman in Khabarovsk, Russia as a translator. Our editor wanted a story on entrepreneurs to reflect the region’s emergence from decades under the repressive centrally controlled regime.

Our translator, who I’ll call Olga and was one of the very few in her once-closed city to speak English, explains that yes, indeed, her city did have some entrepreneurs but they would be difficult to find.

We ask why. Olga sighs and looks at Doug and I like we are a little slow.

“This is Russia,” she says. “For years, everybody earned the same salary. Nothing. A doctor was paid the same as a janitor. We all had small apartments. We stood in the same lines to get fresh meat.”

Ugly American journalists

OK, Doug and I say, still not getting it. We have just two days to pull together interviews chronicling the new capitalists, and we feel a little desperate. Our Alaska Airlines flight is the first on a new international route, and my stories and Doug’s photos would unveil to our state the once mysterious Cold War foe.

But we come up with nothing. We had just gone through a bustling open-air market, rnkhabri where people sold everything from pirated compact discs, electronics, produce and baked goods. Nobody would talk to us. One grizzled character even raised his arms and shouted what I believe were expletives at Olga while pointing in our direction. Even the shoppers gave us the evil eye after that.

We sit on a park bench nearby and Olga says, “This is a communist country. If one man has more than his neighbor, it is considered wrong.”

Then Olga tells us this little story. I’m a little foggy on the details but here’s the gist: A man works hard on a little garden he maintains in the country, earning enough to buy a goat. This goat produces milk that feeds his family, making his children strong. Food is rationed then and hard to come by. People stand in long lines for hours just to get a chunk of cheese or loaf of bread. He sells the extra milk to supplement his salary at the factory.

Soviet entrepreneur

The man lives in a tiny apartment but keeps the goat on his dacha, a postage stamp of land just outside the city. He must visit the goat in the morning and night. She soon gives him two kids. In a couple years, he has four goats and is making good money off milk and vegetables. His children are healthy, and his wife is happy.

However, his neighbors don’t like his changing fortunes. They want what he has. But rather than starting their own gardens and getting their own goats, the solve it Soviet style.

They beat the guy up, burn his garden and kill his goats. “You’re no better than we are,” they say.

The parable is roughly the same as Nickolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” which I devoured as a grade-schooler. I mention this to Olga and she smiles and nods.

Sticking with the status quo

The neighbors in the story remind me of the oil industry. They’re secure with the status quo and wary of change. Rather than encourage the pursuit of other sources of industry, Rare movies on DVD they’d prefer to stick with the familiar.

That short-sightedness didn’t do much for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. When President Reagan said, “Tear down that wall,” he knew it was already full of cracks.

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