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For Big Oil, does the future look too much like the past?

May 28, 2008 |  5:00 am

From Times staff writer Edward Silver:

With Big Oil pumping out immense profits, you’d think cash would be available to fund renewable-energy programs. It is, and there's plenty of it, yet the majors' outsize earnings may be leading them back to the oil patch instead.

In February, BP said it would regard its impressive solar and wind operations strictly for their equity value and might spin them off. So much for Beyond Petroleum. More recently, Royal Dutch Shell withdrew from a landmark wind project in Britain and in 2006 sold the lion’s share of its solar interests to a German firm.

Exxon Mobil Corp., the giant among giants, remains outspoken in its belief in the enduring primacy of oil -- an issue that activist shareholders challenged at the company's annual meeting today in Dallas. Energy alternatives have gotten a bit more traction at Chevron Corp. and ConocoPhillips, but they still take a far back seat to other priorities at those premier fossil fuel marketers.

Big Oil commands the expertise, and certainly the resources, to play a transformative role in tackling the planet's energy dilemma. That, however, would entail a measure of self-transformation. At least in the short term, these profit machines have little incentive to bear the costs of a new mission or foster a culture of change.

Contrast their stance with that of U.S. carmakers. General Motors Corp., for one, is scrambling for survival by investing in hybrids, fuel cells and other technologies that limit oil use and carbon emissions. "The auto industry has been disciplined by the marketplace," said Deron Lovaas, a transportation expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Their profit margins are gone. The marketplace is not providing the discipline for the oil companies to help get us where we, and they, need to go."

Instead, the majors are going to Canada’s Alberta province to squeeze oil out of tar sands. These lands contain potentially 175 billion recoverable barrels, but don't expect to see gushers. The oil is embedded in sand, clay and silt, and its extraction requires great flows of water and natural gas. In the process, a heavy load of CO2 is released, much more than in conventional oil operations. Costs are steep in the tar sands. The added overhead is justified only by the startling price the resource now fetches.

Why are the majors going to such trouble? As the cliché says, the low-hanging fruit already has been picked. Access to the world’s rich fields is dwindling for the Western oil powers. Stagnant global output is fanning supply fears –- is "peak oil" approaching? -– and state-controlled companies overseas have a lock on the majority of the remaining assets. Consider that in the most recent quarter, maturing wells and confiscation in Venezuela factored into a 10% decline in production at Exxon Mobil. For investors, that was an oil shock of a different kind.

Blog_exxon_2 "Many people in the industry I speak to off the record admit to being quite terrified about where future supply is coming from," said Andrew Logan, oil program director at CERES, which works with investors toward environmental goals. "They don’t know what to do, so they are investing in these secondary sources. They see where the future is going, but their business is so good currently that they fear the market response if they diversify."

Indeed, Big Oil is finely attuned to rewarding shareholders by throwing off cash. Stock buybacks outstrip spending to find oil and gas, to say nothing of the industry’s minuscule investment in clean and renewable fuels. Exxon, for example, racked up almost $405 billion in revenue last year, taking home $40.6 billion in profit. About $21 billion was channeled into capital costs, including exploration.

By contrast, the company laid out $31.8 billion to take its own shares out of circulation. And then there's the ever-rising dividend. Even after the buybacks, Exxon has $41.4 billion in cash sitting on its balance sheet.

Exxon's direction is under fire from some activist investors. At the annual meeting today ballots will be taken on a series of resolutions mandating sustainable-energy projects, along with a proposal to separate the roles of chief executive and chairman.

The California Public Employees' Retirement System, the biggest public pension pool in the U.S., is an avid backer of the campaign, which CERES helped organize. Large swaths of the Rockefeller clan –- descendants of Exxon's founder, John D. -- are keen to see the company's top jobs divided. A smaller but still sizable contingent favors the green intitiatives. (Post-meeting update: The ballot measures failed. Go here for the results.)

These investors say the firm's own sustainability is at risk, not just energy resources. To keep the rich returns coming, they argue, Exxon can't ignore the need to adapt to a low-carbon future, with momentum shifting to renewables. Better, why not lead the way?

It's a future that's still blurry, but it promises to change the equation for Big Oil. As the majors tear up the tar sands and delve into even more experimental sources like the shale along the Continental Divide, each unit of energy becomes more costly to extract.

Regulation is likely to pile on additional burdens. Lawmakers are expected to attach a price to carbon emissions in the coming years and potentially raise standards for clean-burning fuels. Investors aren't being warned because no one can put their finger on the charges. Analysts on Wall Street "don't know how to capture these potential costs yet," said Philip Weiss of Argus Research. If and when the numbers change, he said, oil company shareholders may be in for a rude surprise.

Weiss applauds the majors' dive into the tar sands but also believes they need to direct some of their vast resources into alternatives. He favors the venture capital model rather than in-house projects -- he’s not sure these old hands are built to go about the task effectively themselves.

"Oil is a depleting resource, and if I’m a shareholder, that's something I care about," Weiss said. "If the company does nothing to replace it, eventually that company is going to go away."

Photo: Lisa Poole/Associated Press