ENERGY POLICY:

Oil execs chortle as Obama admin promotes renewables

HOUSTON -- Renewable energy is being praised in Washington, but it is generating snickers here in the nation's traditional energy capital, where oil, gas and utility leaders are gathered for a major industry conference.

Leaders of two of the world's largest oil and gas companies used their addresses at CERAWeek, a sprawling conference sponsored by energy analysis firm IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates, to warn against unbridled optimism about wind and solar energy. Khalid Al-Falih, president and CEO of Saudi Aramco, deemed overreliance on renewable power dangerous, while ConocoPhillips Chairman James Mulva employed sarcasm to compare renewable boosters to those who won't acknowledge climate change.

"We must overcome the opposition of the 'hydrocarbon deniers,'" Mulva said, playing off the term "climate deniers," used to describe skeptics about climate science. Hydrocarbon deniers, he said, are those who "believe that renewable energy will quickly and easily replace hydrocarbons and cure all that ails us."

Mulva, whose company supports mandatory U.S. regulation of greenhouse gases, said renewables cannot develop quickly enough to replace fossil fuels, and he predicted that even in 40 years, most electricity will not come from renewable sources.

"After all, there are only so many places where massive development is economical and publicly acceptable," Mulva said, "and only so much government funding to subsidize the renewable sources."

Al-Falih said too much focus on renewables could diminish the investment needed to continue producing traditional fuels and could create a "green bubble" in energy markets.

"The belief in an almost instantaneous transformation to alternative energy is worrisome to me," Al-Falih said. "While our subsurface resources remain plentiful, we may create a bottleneck above ground by failing to invest wisely and in a timely fashion."

Al-Falih touted investment by Saudi Aramco and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in developing solar energy technologies.

"We want Saudi Arabia to be a global leader not only in petroleum, but energy in general," he said.

The two executives spoke after Energy Secretary Steven Chu gave a talk that praised renewables and urged the energy leaders to accept regulation to rein in climate change. He talked up the possibility of biofuels meeting most of the growth in the country's liquid fuels supply and said $600 million in stimulus funding will support 19 pilot, demonstration and commercial-scale biorefineries.

The Department of Energy budget advanced by Chu and the Obama administration sides even more with renewables over fossil fuels. The spending plan proposes a 53 percent jump in funding for wind research and a 22 percent boost for solar research. By contrast, it zeroes out funding for natural gas research. And it proposes to wipe out an array of tax benefits for the oil and gas industry. The industry said such a move could raise its costs by $80 billion across the next 10 years.

Mulva lambasted the administration's proposals to terminate tax benefits on oil and gas. "Perhaps it has not learned that if you tax something you get less of it," he said. "Less supply security, fewer jobs and lower reinvestment."

Many renewables, he stressed, have their own disadvantages.

Wind and solar have problems with "cost, reliability, visual impact, land and water use, bird strikes and massive power-line rights of way," Mulva said. Biofuels, he said, require large amounts of land and water, can drive up food prices and increase greenhouse gas emissions.

The executives' remarks come as the wind industry is increasing its Washington presence, pushing for a requirement in an energy and climate bill for utilities to use a set percentage of renewable fuels. It is also fighting off a legislative effort to block stimulus funds from going to wind and other renewable projects unless the parts are manufactured in the United States (Greenwire, March 10).

Denise Bode, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association, told reporters in Washington yesterday that her industry is being targeted by the traditional energy industries because they see wind as a threat. She said, "I consider that a compliment."

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