Notes from the Energy Tour

I have mentioned here before the town halls being conducted by Shell and ConocoPhillips that are designed to capture the concerns of the American public on energy issues. I think these tours are important, because I believe the public is terribly uninformed on energy matters. These tours open up the opportunity for dialogue, which is a critical component of formulating sound energy policy.

Each year my company conducts an opinion survey in which all employees are asked to give their views on the direction of the company. In 2005, I made an argument that we needed to dedicate more resources toward sustainable options, because we want to be an energy company, not an oil company. In 2006, after watching the public become incredibly hostile over sharply higher oil and gas prices, I argued that we really needed to get out there and dialogue with the public about what we do. While I have no pretensions that my single voice made much difference in the overall scheme, I am pleased to see that company policies have been consistent with my preferences.

Shell is on a 91-city tour (see an article on one of Shell’s stops here). ConocoPhillips’ latest stop was in Macon, Georgia:

Oil company faces skeptical questions

Officials with oil company ConocoPhillips fielded barbed questions from a mostly skeptical audience at a public forum on energy the company sponsored Thursday.

To be honest, that’s just the way I like it. Skepticism is good, but too often based on misinformation.

Many in the audience challenged the company’s dedication to alternative energy. Linda Smyth, president of the Middle Georgia Clean Cities Coalition, angrily informed ConocoPhillips executives that the many new producers of biodiesel and ethanol in Georgia believe big oil companies are trying to drive them out of business. Half a dozen biofuel refineries have been announced for Middle Georgia in the last year.

Many are exporting their product to other countries instead of selling it in Georgia because oil companies won’t allow alternative fuel to be sold at their fueling stations, she said. “I think that’s a crime,” Smyth said. “Big Oil should be buying every drop…. Where are the alternative fuel pumps?”

This is where I would have had a very difficult time holding my tongue. Instead of giving a very politically correct answer:

“It’s not in our interest or that of the country to try to drive anybody out of business,” said Bob Ridge, vice president of health, safety and environment for ConocoPhillips, adding that he’d share these concerns with other company leaders.

I would have tended toward “Oh? Companies in the U.S. are exporting alternative fuels to other countries? That wouldn’t seem to make much economic sense, given that they would lose their subsidy on these volumes. Can you give me specific details, because I know that we are still importing significant amounts of biofuels? My understanding, which is in fact a claim made by the Renewable Fuels Association, is that the production of all domestic ethanol was absorbed into the U.S. market.”

In fact, I believe Linda Smyth is completely full of it. I think I will e-mail her and ask her for details, as I have never heard this claim. (I have now e-mailed her after a reader located her e-mail address). Perhaps she should also do the math and figure out how much E85 – the fuel that she is talking about when she refers to “alternative fuel pumps” – is available for supplying these pumps. I bet if ethanol producers – who would stand to gain by installing these pumps – would foot the bill then that would really help accelerate adoption. My understanding is that a typical service station owner can’t count on enough E85 supply (or demand) to warrant paying for the pumps. Having the ethanol producers pay for them would put the economic onus on them.

It is these sorts of claims, made in a public forum and picked up and reported by newspapers, that give the public a false impression. While these tours should encourage dialogue, they should also confront misinformation.

He listed two main reasons for the company’s “Conversations on Energy” tour: Its need to seek partnerships and ideas on non-traditional energy, and its need to rebuild trust with consumers. “We surveyed Americans one and a half years ago, and learned our industry’s credibility was at the very bottom, below that of Big Tobacco,” Ridge said.

But he insisted this isn’t a spin tour. The company deliberately chooses cities that are not in major media markets (avoiding, for example, Atlanta) and plans to essentially create a “to-do” list based on the feedback it hears, he said.

While acknowledging that ConocoPhillips is a “huge fossil-fuel based company,” Ridge said it wants to become “an energy company” with potentially a very different portfolio in 30 to 50 years. For starters, it has doubled its research and development funding and is starting some alternative fuel pilot projects, including a partnership with Tyson Foods to use animal fats to make fuel.

There was another bit of controversy:

Some questioners asked how the energy industry contributes to global warming. Ridge noted that ConocoPhillips has taken an unprecedented step among oil companies in asking for federal regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.

But panelists did not all agree. George Israel, former Macon mayor and president of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, said he is not convinced human activity causes global warming. On behalf of the state’s business community, he also voiced opposition to government mandates for cleaner fuel, recent fuel efficiency mandates proposed for trucks by 2020, and taxes on oil companies to pay for accelerated alternative energy research.

I hope that these tours have a positive impact. But the turnout in this case wasn’t particularly good:

With less than 100 people, turnout for the forum was lower than average. Many of ConocoPhillips’ other town hall meetings reached more than 200 people. Chris Talley, public relations consultant for ConocoPhillips, said invitations were mailed to the homes of 25,000 Macon-area voters; in addition, 14 local organizations spread the word among their members.

One wonders if a public that is more interested in World Wrestling than in facing up to the energy challenges in front of us will wake up in time to avert a crisis.

6 thoughts on “Notes from the Energy Tour”

  1. Robert her e-mail address is:

    Here is a link to a web page and picture of her: Macon Porsche Club of America

    She appears to have some, “ahem”, rather strong opinions about things. I as well seriously doubt the claim that biofuels are being exported. US biofuel producers have a lot of nerve complaining about oil companies when they hide behind import duties on sugar cane ethanol from the Carribean and Brazil.

  2. Can you blame the public for being uninformed? I have worked in nuclear power for over 17 years, but last year I became more interested in energy in general. In the past year, I have spent about 20-30 hours a week reading about energy and I realize there is still a lot I don’t know.

    One of the aspects of my research that made an impression on me is the amount of needless debate; debate over facts that are, or should be, easily verifiable. A lot of time is spent debating facts when the debate should only be about the value of those facts.

    Even for those interested in energy, it is hard figure out what the truth is.

    Example: What is the EROEI of wind turbines? This should be an easily verifiable fact, yet it endlessly debated.

    Who are we supposed to trust? Every organization has their own interests. There are always numerous factors involved. Cost, reliability, security, environmental impact, scenic impact, jobs, corporate profits and various social agendas. A lot of people are only interested in one or two of these things. Most people don’t have the time to figure out what the truth is, or what the best options are.

    We need an orgaization that is beyond question to provide the basic facts for the public. One made up of engineers, scientists and specialists from every sector of the energy industry whose primary interest is the energy security of our nation. The DOE comes close to this, but they are subject to the politicians. Of course there will always be special interest groups attacking various points, but I think an organization like this might go a long way toward toning down the debate.

    Would such an organization be feasible? Or am I naive?

  3. anonymous,

    I think it would be hard for such an organization to work. To give it “street cred”, it would probably have to include participants like the Sierra Club or Greenpeace. But these organizations are typically so hostile and uninformed about the energy industry, and basic economics in general, that even convincing them to cooperate in such a venture would probably be seen as treason within the ranks. People from the mainstream scientific community will likely be seen to be part of the conspiracy, if their conclusions are in line with oil industry views.

    Interestingly, these kinds of organizations will selectively cite the DOE or EIA when it suits them. So a new scientific body might suffer the same fate. Conclusions ignored where the conclusions contradict industry collusion, but cited where someone might be able to put the right spin on the text to serve their purposes.

    Might be worth a try though. I’ve always thought the oil industry has done a very poor job communicating, allowing such misinformation to fester over the years to the point that Big Oil conspiracies have become an accepted part of the national folklore.

    So, it’s good to hear about the recent attempts to communicate the facts. It will be interesting to see if the public responds… hope to hear some news about it on here, because it probably won’t be reported much elsewhere. Even if it is, the journalist who writes it up will surely include a counterpoint from the usual goofy sources.

  4. Robert – let us know how your dialog with Ms. Smyth goes. Her rant seems to be that big oil should sell E85 and biodiesel at branded stations (It doesn’t occur to her to get her friends together to buy their own station and sell whatever they want.) whether or not their is a market for it or a supply at reasonable prices.

    She seems to be a bit of a harpy. I could easily see the exchange degenerating to:

    Smyth: “If I were your wife I would put biodiesel in your coffe.”

    Rapier: “If I were your husband, madam, I would drink it.”

    How about those Sooners!

  5. Speaking of harpies. Armchair is right. He is lately doing battle over at . Reading the posts over there will give you an idea of how certain groups would view any organization that disagreed with them.

    When the FTC pours cold water on “hot fuel”, Oilwatchdog paints them as partisan hacks. Same with the DOE.

    If the FTC or DOE actually agreed with oilwatchdog, they would immediatetly be venerated.

    It seems to me that the radical environmental movement doesn’t really care about facts or reality. They believe that energy companies must pay for past grievances and any solution that leaves big oil in tact is unacceptable. That is why they don’t want existing subsidies or tax incentives applied to fuels or energy produced by a major oil company.

  6. I found this little gem on Linda Smyth: Southeastern Bioenergy Conference

    And Linda Smyth, the president of Middle Georgia Clean Cities Coalition, compared her pursuit of biodiesel fuels in her hometown of Macon to an addiction.

    “I have a biodiesel dependency. I drive to the very bad side of town to get biodiesel,” she quipped. “And I only pay top dollar.”

    And there is this:
    Alternative Fuel Vehicle Caravan

    The alternative-energy caravan, sponsored by the Middle Georgia Clean Cities Coalition, left the Capitol in Atlanta on Monday morning, traveled south on Interstate 75 and rolled into Macon shortly before noon before heading back to the Interstate for the trip to Tifton.
    “Many of these are powered by Georgia’s home grown products,” said Linda Smyth, a clean cities spokeswoman. “One vehicle is powered by biodiesel made from chicken fat. Others are burning biodiesel made from soybean oil.

    “We’re trying to promote products made from pine since Georgia has 25 million acres in forestry production,” she said. “In theory any plant cellulose can be turned into ethanol – whisky from corn, rum from sugar cane and vodka from potatoes.”

    The vehicles included three large Chevrolet SUVs powered by a mixture of 15 percent gasoline and 85 percent ethanol. Two of them had bright green stripes against a yellow background of corn kernels, while the third was a solid black police vehicle with flashing lights, a siren, a large badge on the hood and the words “Backup has arrived” painted on the two front fenders.

    In another article you see what she really wants. Her group is trolling for federal government handouts to put in 10 biodiesel pumps along I-75 in Georgia to the tune of $350,000.

Comments are closed.