Sun, Jul 02, 2006 - Page 19 News List

The energy industry turns a shade of green

Royal Dutch Shell is piping waste carbon dioxide to rose growers who use it to nurture their crops. Could alternative projects offset the damage that energy companies cause the environment?


Gardener Frank can Os in his greenhouse in Maasland, Netherlands.


A few kilometers north of Rotterdam, in a region the Dutch call "glass city" for its thousands of greenhouses, gardeners like Frank van Os are part of an unconventional experiment by Royal Dutch Shell to curb carbon emissions.

Van Os breeds 4 million roses each year, flooding the atmosphere inside his vast glass canopy with pure carbon dioxide to bolster his crop. What is unusual is that he now gets the carbon dioxide piped in directly from Pernis, a Shell refinery that is Europe's largest and typically discharges tonnes of the gas into the atmosphere every year.

"You can just hear it," said Van Os, as carbon dioxide hissed through small plastic pipes, feeding the long-stemmed red roses all around. "It goes pshh."

Shell's modest effort in this corner of Europe -- aiming to cut the refinery's emissions by 8 percent by diverting it to about 500 greenhouses -- is not going to solve the global warming challenge, of course. But the experiment to limit emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas blamed for climate change, illustrates a fundamental shift in the oil industry that offers glimmers of hope for the future.

With energy consumption expected to increase over the next few decades, a number of leading oil executives now say that how their industry manages carbon emissions will become as important to their business prospects as replenishing energy reserves.

"The debate about CO2 is changing," Jeroen van der Veer, the chief executive of Shell, said in a recent interview. "You can either fight it -- which is useless -- or you can see it as a business opportunity."

The rising alarm over global warming has prompted some oil executives -- particularly those based in Europe like Shell and BP -- to promote their efforts to develop alternative energy sources that release less carbon dioxide, like wind, solar power and hydrogen from renewable sources.

But the more important industry effort turns on the ability to manage emissions from petroleum itself, based on a self-interested recognition that, if nothing is done, the future costs of carbon emissions may threaten the core of their business, the production of fossil fuels.

The industry's involvement in the debate is clouded by suspicions that oil companies, even as they seek to develop alternative and renewable sources of energy, are also heavily investing in resources that are dirtier and more polluting than crude oil.

While some environmentalists continue to question the industry's motives, many oil executives say that they now recognize that to sustain the industry over the long run they need to help mitigate carbon emissions and other harmful pollutants from their operations.

For years, oil companies would not talk about the impact of their business on the environment. That many even acknowledge the link between fossil fuels and climate change is a measure of how far they have come over the last decade. "It is urgent to act," Thierry Desmarest, the chief executive of Total, the French oil company, said during a recent breakfast at the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan. "Carbon is what poses the biggest problem."

"People at the top of the oil business are beginning to realize that there is a problem with climate change and they are looking for ways to compete in a carbon-constrained world," said David Keith, an energy and climate specialist at the University of Calgary. "Most of that elite now admits the problem is real."

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