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By Robert Rapier on Sep 9, 2007 with no responses

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.