Big Oil Races to Become Big Clean

Eithne Treanor  |Special to

The realization that diversification of energy is in everyone's interest has shifted perceptions and the big oil companies, the likes of BP and Shell, have taken the lead in alternative energy.

Chevron claims to be "the world's largest producer of geothermal energy" and BP Alternatives is a thriving division within the company. Companies like ExxonMobil now proudly claim to "be part of the solution, not the problem," since the main problem with fossil fuel has been one of big pollution and big profit.

But if profit is a necessary condition to drive investment in the energy business, pollution of the atmosphere is no longer an acceptable option, most of these companies say. 

Pressure groups like Greenpeace, the champions of alternative energy and voice of the anti-oil lobby welcome their participation but question their sincerity. Pascal Husting is the Head of Greenpeace, France and he criticises the oil companies for spending too much money and attention on one main area to clean what he calls "dirty oil."

"Big oil companies focus on the end-of-pipe Carbon Capture and Storage technology at the expense of real alternative technologies," Husting said. Many of the big oil companies like to be seen to be in the right space, but their interest is short-term and their real commitment is lacking, he argued.

Pressure groups like Greenpeace have certainly mobilised public and government opinion over the years and in no small way contributed to the cleaner energy legislation in place now.

Recession Pressure

But we must be realistic about the energy mix and realise that we need "more diversification and investment in conventional and non-conventional energy as fossil fuel will with us for decades to come," Vahan Zanoyan, PFC Energy Chairman, long-term veteran of the energy business, economist and now CEO of First Energy Bank said.

Oil Barrels

While many of the oil companies may have been brought kicking and screaming to the alternative energy space, leading chief executives say they are now here to stay. "It's not a choice if we should do renewables. We need all of it," said Jeroen van der Veer, CEO of Shell. "We need conventional oil, unconventional oil, gas, renewables and nuclear. There’s more than enough space for all." 

The global recession may have dampened energy demand this year, but in the longer term, The International Energy Agency says that world energy demand will double by 2030 as the population grows to close to 9 billion.

This will put huge pressure on existing energy supply. All the international oil companies realize this and they are constantly upgrading their plans to develop cleaner and more efficient fuel, as well as using their expertise, influence and financial clout to develop alternative fuels.

The Saudi Arabian Government has taken the initiative to invest and develop alternative energy sources along side fossil fuels and national oil company Aramco is a proponent of alternative fuel using solar power at pumping stations and oil fields. "It’s one of the best sources of energy in the region due to the abundance of sun and the space to build solar farms," Ibrahim al-Muhanna, senior advisor to the Saudi Arabia oil minister, said.

As everyone agrees that investment in alternative energy needs to be stepped up, international and national oil companies are eager to further their initiatives into this field. But at the current low oil prices and with global demand slowing, there are fears that alternative energy could suffer a setback in the short term.