JENNINGS, La. — For decades, the big oil companies and the farm lobby have been fighting about ethanol, with the farmers pushing to produce more of it and the refiners arguing it was a boondoggle that would do little to solve the country’s energy problems.
So why are technicians for BP , the giant oil company, now working at an experimental ethanol plant in this old Louisiana oil town, helping to make it more efficient?
The erstwhile enemies, it turns out, are gradually learning to get along, as refiners increasingly see a need to get involved in ethanol production. Ethanol, made chiefly from corn, now represents about 9 percent of the country’s market for liquid fuels. And the percentage is growing year after year because of federal mandates. With the nation’s thirst for gasoline, and the ethanol that is blended into it, expected to revive when the economy does, the oil companies want to be in a position to take full advantage.
The interest expressed by big oil companies is coming in the nick of time for small companies that desperately need capital and cannot find it these days in the private markets. Take the case of Verenium Corporation , a small company based in Cambridge, Mass., that here in Jennings is testing new forms of biofuels in alliance with BP. Instead of ethanol made from food crops, the partners are devising a version from grasses in the sugar cane family.
The experiments here are preparation for building a second, $250 million plant in Florida with the capacity to produce 36 million gallons a year of new biofuels — the first commercial plant of its type built with oil company money and expertise. Verenium scientists have already developed a secret sauce of enzymes and microbes that ferment and distill biomass into ethanol. Now BP is contributing technical expertise aimed at getting the temperatures and pressures in the vats just right.
Commercial success is not assured, of course. But the fact that a major oil company has even made an alliance to go commercial with Verenium is considered a breakthrough by many ethanol executives.
“Any time you get Big Oil into the game, that changes the paradigm because nobody can go large scale chemical engineering like Big Oil,” said Brent Erickson, an executive vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade group.
Only two years ago, BP had only a minuscule investment in biofuels. But since then the company has committed $1.5 billion to various projects. Along with its work with Verenium, it entered a partnership with a Brazilian concern last year to produce ethanol from sugar cane.
Lessons learned in Louisiana may eventually help convert Brazilian cane into more advanced biofuels, researchers say, producing a potentially vast new reserve for BP.
BP also speaks with optimism about a partnership with DuPont to test production of biobutanol, an advanced liquid alcohol fuel that is made from the same feed stocks as advanced ethanols and is compatible with existing pipelines and car engines. Executives say they hope to begin making the fuel in large amounts by 2013.
“We can see biofuels as being a really big potential reservoir,” said Phil New, president of the company’s BP Biofuels unit. “For an energy firm to get into sugar cane farming is a pretty big move.”
Oil companies are still skeptical about conventional ethanol, especially the type made from corn, which they say corrodes pipelines and is inefficient.
The plant here is just one sign that the big oil companies are now at least grudgingly accepting biofuels — particularly those made from wastes and nonfood sources, which do not bear corn ethanol’s stigma of raising food prices.
The big change came in the 2007 energy law enacted by Congress that set ambitious mandates for refineries to blend increasing amounts of biofuels over the years. By 2022 they will be obliged to blend 36 billion gallons of biofuels, or more than three times current levels.
“If the government is going to make a market happen, we needed to be able to participate commercially in that market,” Mr. New said.
The oil companies also say that as crude oil becomes ever more difficult and expensive to find, biofuels can bolster their reserves.
“There will be a need for all these fuels,” said Graeme Sweeney, executive vice president for future fuels and carbon dioxide at Royal Dutch Shell . He predicted that the 1 percent of the world’s transportation fuels that are biofuels today “could easily be 10 percent in the next decade or so.”
Shell was the first of the big oil companies to venture significantly into the new biofuels, getting its toes wet in 2002 by providing money to a Canadian company called Iogen Corporation to research making ethanol from plant waste. Shell would not discuss how much money it is now investing in biofuels, but said it had quadrupled biofuel research spending since 2007.
Shell has also formed partnerships with a variety of small companies at work on improving enzymes that break down various plants and waste materials for ethanol, making fuels from algae and even biogasoline from sugary liquids derived from plant materials. Chevron has formed a joint venture with Weyerhaeuser to develop biofuels from wood waste.
And Valero Energy Corporation , the country’s largest petroleum refiner, has snapped up seven corn ethanol plants from VeraSun Energy in recent months since VeraSun filed for bankruptcy protection last fall. Valero has suggested that it could transform the plants for newer blends of ethanol.
Each initiative is still small compared with the companies’ multibillion-dollar oil exploration and refining budgets, prompting skeptics to say they are more interested in improving their image than producing clean fuels.
“If we depend too heavily on the big oil companies to drive the biofuel agenda,” warned Jeff Broin, chief executive of the ethanol producer Poet, “we’ll be using large volumes of oil for many, many years to come.”
But taken together, the research projects and deals are a sharp contrast to the scaled-back oil company projects in other alternative energy sources like hydrogen and solar. And the support is welcome for small entrepreneurial companies that are long on new technologies and short on capital.
“With any start-up company, people say ‘Wow, but is it going to work?’ ” said Randy Cortright, founder and chief technical officer of Virent Energy Systems. His company wants to make a biogasoline from plant sugars that is chemically similar to gasoline produced by conventional petroleum refineries.
He said Shell’s investment raised his company’s credibility with lenders “by giving their vote of confidence in this technology, spending resources and providing their own people for development.” Shell also will eventually distribute the product, he said, “and they already have the infrastructure for taking the product to the fuel pump so the consumer can use it.”
Arnold R. Klann, chief executive of BlueFire Ethanol , a company that converts municipal waste into ethanol and is seeking financing to build plants, said lenders wanted to know that an ethanol company had credible long-term customers to generate revenues. He said he had draft contracts with two major oil companies he could not yet identify that wanted to invest in his operations and use his fuels.
“There is tremendous interest by the oil companies to invest in these first-of-a-kind projects,” Mr. Klann said. “Where they were initially investing very tentatively in new technology development, in the last year they have begun to finally invest in companies that are building commercial production facilities.”
In Jennings, BP technicians advise Verenium technicians on what types of metals to use to line their pipes, what kind of valves will last longest and how to position blades in fermenting tanks to best mix chemicals and feed stocks. It is all an effort to reduce the price of the product to quickly compete with conventional ethanol and perhaps, eventually, with gasoline.
“We are the chef, and they are more like the restaurant manager,” said Mark G. Eichenseer, Verenium’s vice president for operations. “We have the recipes, and they have the experience and know-how to select the pots and pans.”