Blue-skying petroleum’s future

Felix Kramer, founder of the California Cars Initiative, was a keynoter at a recent Houston energy conference sponsored by Rice University’s Baker Institute and ConocoPhillips. Here is the message he wanted to send to the petroleum industry.

Would your family want to live within breathing distance of the Houston Ship Channel? Or near one of the world’s top targets for terrorists? Can you imagine that choke point someday as a recreational destination?

As Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.” Can you picture a world where fossil fuels are the last resort, not the first? If anyone can think big, it’s Texans. What if Houston’s corporate HQs and its giant port found their way to a new winning streak?

After eight years in which and our partners put plug-in hybrids on the map — and soon into dealer showrooms near you — I’m looking up for the Next Big Thing. As a serial entrepreneur, as I blue-sky, I’m thinking optimistically about the actual blue sky we look up at — the one that brings out the best in every shade of green we see.

I’m as conservative as they come about our sky. How about you? Just as scientists know that the sky is blue because light scatters when it hits oxygen and nitrogen, they also recognize just how poisoned air can threaten our way of life — perhaps even human existence itself. That’s why so many government and business leaders convened September 27 to talk about Energy Market Consequences of an Emerging U.S. Carbon Management Policy.”

That’s why I’ve made it my business to take on a daunting goal. I work to reduce greenhouse gases 80% by 2050. Some countries and industries — and lots of smart money — are embracing this challenge. But more still look the other way. That’s short-sighted. Besides the impacts of climate change, these days we have so many reasons to redefine business as usual. Do you really like spending over a billion dollars a day on imported oil? We get our oil and natural gas from deep and remote underground sources. But as we’ve seen from our beloved Gulf Coast to the Marcellus Shale Formation, can we ever fully protect against all the risks? And do we have the vast amounts of water and other resources to divert to extract those fuels? How much fun will it be to fall far behind Asia and Europe as they reinvent economic growth around efficiency, cleantech, and renewable energy — while we’re stuck like fossils in a second-rate backwater?

Every day I work hard to move us towards a low-carbon world, just 40 years out. The low-hanging fruit — ending our addiction to oil for transportation — could be our generation’s triumph. Right after Pearl Harbor, Americans stopped making cars and trucks and built planes and tanks faster than anyone thought possible. Now it’s our turn to retool and recharge.

My family will be among the first to reload and refuel, replacing our two cars with a Chevy Volt and a Nissan Leaf . I’m delighted we’ll have a million plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles on U.S. roads within five years. But even if they penetrate the market at lightning speed — 10 times faster than hybrids sold in the last decade — in 15 years, plug-ins will still be less than one fifth of America’s 250 million vehicles. That’s because gas-guzzlers stay on the road much longer than you think. So why don’t we upgrade them to plug in?

A “Big Fix” to do just that could create many local jobs and make and save lots of money. With Intel co-founder Andy Grove and others, I’m promoting the idea of converting most of our large gas guzzlers to run partly or entirely on electricity. We’re already retrofitting homes, offices and factories. We can extend the lives of our pickups, SUVS, vans, and buses. And by replacing gallons with kilowatts, we’ll spend only a quarter as much per mile to drive them.

Federal and state governments are already paying tens of thousands of dollars per vehicle to companies that convert trucks to run on natural gas. Unfortunately, that doesn’t get us off fossil fuels. Natural gas cuts CO2 by a measly 30%. But every vehicle we retrofit to run on electricity will get cleaner as it gets older, because its power will come from increasingly low-carbon sources — including all that West Texas wind.

In 2011, new companies will surprise us with technical solutions and business models for a giant, new U.S.-led global industry. They’ll show how to convert almost anything except long-haul trucks. In a few years, as batteries get cheaper, and we can put lightweight motors right inside wheels, many of today’s small cars can also become affordable, safe, all-electrics or plug-in hybrids. And they might use battery separators invented by Exxon Mobil.

I’m a big fan when the oil industry zeroes in on the smartest, best uses for its products. I love it when hydrocarbons are locked up in plastic for consumer products, synthetic fibers and building materials. I hope oil technologies and rigs are soon used globally for lots more geothermal drilling . I cheer when Chevron invests in a startup that sells aviation biofuel from algae to the U.S. Navy. That’s 21st century leadership, inspiring the entire industry to go beyond petroleum.

I’d like to see the industry sponsor a successor to the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize focused on retrofit solutions. I invite a born-again oil industry to accelerate its rebirth by forging a bipartisan consensus to put a price on carbon emissions. And I’d welcome any oil companies announcements that they are not joining Valero, Tessoro and the Koch brothers in funding efforts to kill California’s pioneering legislation on global warming.

The industry can jump on many huge business and job creation opportunity. Take agriculture. Rather than continuing to pump up hundreds of ocean dead zones with runoff, and watch as others capture their customers, oil companies can invest in better solutions. The industry can look at biochar–an emerging no-side-effects geoengineering and soil enrichment technology. It can invest in smarter substitutes for petroleum-derived pesticides. That’s scalable since low-carbon farming techniques yield larger harvests than today’s global average. The icing on the cake? Biochar and organic farming could capture half the world’s greenhouse gases!

In 2050, I’d like to see my grandchildren run around a Houston Ship Channel full of yacht marinas and dune buggy trails. I’d watch them gulp fresh air as they take up my new favorite sport, stand-up paddle boarding, on its clean, still waters. And I’d love to hear what crazy new challenge they dream up as they gaze at the big Texas sky.

—  Felix Kramer,

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10 Responses to Blue-skying petroleum’s future

  1. I love it when hydrocarbons are locked up in plastic for consumer products, synthetic fibers and building materials.


    Ever heard of the North Pacific gyre and its growing plastic rubbish mat? How about how plastics are being broken up into micro pieces and incorporated within living organisms. You may contemplate that next time you are consuming your favourite sea food.


  2. jimvj says:

    Prudent environmentalists might not want to latch on prematurely to fads such as biochar. There is insufficient research on what would happen if this was applied on a large scale. Run-off from farms that can transport dissolved phosphates etc to oceans and lakes, would also transport suspended biochar. What would happen to colloidal like suspension of biochar? Bacteria can “digest” long chain hydrocarbons – leading to anoxic zones. Do we know that this will not happen with biochar?

    The Wiki page on biochar describes both positive and negative effects of biochar. So caution and more research is definitely warranted.

  3. Jeff Huggins says:

    Carrot and Stick

    I don’t know much about a couple of the solutions and transitions that Felix mentioned, so (technically speaking) I can’t quite say “Bravo 100 percent!” But, in terms of direction and spirit, I’ll offer a big Bravo! I do think his broad point and approach are excellent.

    Indeed, one of our biggest problems is that the oil companies think of themselves as (mainly) transportation fuel companies but with the “transportation fuel” to them meaning hydrocarbon-based fuels from oil. In other words, they don’t really think of themselves as “energy” companies broadly speaking — that is, broadly enough to see themselves as clean energy companies in the future. Nor do they really see themselves broadly in any substantive sense. They are mainly acting as though they are glued to conventional uses for oil — stuck in the past — and not really thinking of themselves as energy companies that are racing to become clean energy companies, or as companies that would rather use hydrocarbons in high-value uses that don’t involve combustion and GHG generation.

    They are really stuck in the past and trying to preserve the past. Elvis lives!

    (To be clear, I love Elvis, but playing his music doesn’t mess up the climate.)

    So, the oil companies NEED the sort of creative thinking Felix offers, and they need to see what’s “in it” for them — the carrot. They need to hear this stuff time and time and time again. Show them the carrot, describe it to them, and so forth. Bravo to Felix!

    The only thing I’d add — and this goes to the point that many things will need to be involved in transitioning society — is that in the overall mix of things, the stick (figuratively speaking) will still need to be a very, very big part of the mix.

    In other words, “Hey oil companies: Here’s a great big exciting carrot for you if you go there, do that, and get it; and here’s the big stick that you’ll deserve if you insist on fighting against the future and keeping us addicted to oil.”

    We need both “carrot” and “stick’ in the diverse but clear messages we send to oil companies, in all ways. Right now, society is behaving largely like passive petroleum passengers — along for the ride and happy to pump petroleum products into cars and profits into petroleum pushers. We need to change the signals we send via our words and actions: We need to somehow implement the largest carrot-and-stick approach in history in dealing with the oil and coal companies. They seem to be very slow learners, so the sooner we get with it, the better.

    Again, bravo to Felix!



  4. Leif says:

    Hay Obama, lead the Nation,
    Give us climate education!

  5. OregonStream says:

    And a very large scale it would need to be, jimvj, for it along with organic farming (which still hasn’t been widely adopted due to smaller yields etc.) to handle half the world’s emissions.

    Converting old gas guzzlers to electric sounds like a great idea on the surface too. But usually part of the reason they guzzle is because they’re heavy. I’d think to meet the demands of the typical driver, those V8’s and V6’s would need to be replaced or supplemented with quite a powerful, expensive drive to get decent electric range out of them. But if “every little bit counts”…

  6. David B. Benson says:

    Replace coal burners.

    I suggest lotsa nuclear.

  7. David B. Benson says:

    Turning Waste Heat Into Power
    That might help a little.

  8. David B. Benson says:

    A energy plan for Denmark in 2050:
    No nukes there.

  9. _Flin_ says:

    Actually oil is used in so many products, it really is much to valuable to burn.
    For an interesting vision of a post climate change/post oil world read “The Windup Girl” by Paolo Bacigalupi. ( )

  10. Bruce Ackerman says:

    Bravo indeed.

    I applaud Felix, and, for the vision to combine the intensely political work of promoting the change we need, with a positive approach. Engaging people in building the future we want together, and using our work as an example to shame the giants into joining us, is much more healthy for our political process and our morale in these difficult times, than is spending all our time trying to stop bad things from being done.

    As with any endeavor, the building of a renewable “blue-sky” world requires hard thinking, compromises, creative dialog, and a can-do attitude. These very qualities will also serve to keep the fabric of civil society together through tough times, which (as Lovelock says) may be the biggest challenge in the end.

    Regarding jimvj’s cautions on biochar, we definitely need to be careful about any sudden huge-scale implementation. But there are unquestionably a number of very good uses for this concept. For example, where I live we collect green waste, but it’s used as “alternate daily cover” at the dump – i.e. it’s not composted, and this organic matter is permanently mixed with the toxic junk in the landfill. Biochar would be a far better approach.

    Regarding the oil industry, they have all tried to broaden their scope to “energy”. Nearly every oil corporation has dabbled in photovoltaic production, for example. However, their business assets are mainly worldwide real estate (mineral rights etc), political leverage (often less than democratic), legal prowess, extraction/refining technology, and a liquid fuel distribution network. Given this, it’s hard to get them involved in the kind of distributed generation, and most likely electric-grid-based, future that would make the most sense for us. So in short, it’s the classic problem of capitalism: the big winners in yesterday’s competition for the most useful business model, are now the big obstacles to today’s needed transition to a new model.