Oil Firms Break Promise on Biofuels as Chevron Defies California

Chevron Corp. helped write the first-in-the-nation rule ordering reduced carbon emissions from cars and trucks. Its biofuels chief spoke at the ceremony where California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the executive order in 2007, the same year the oil company pledged to develop a gasoline replacement from wood.

Now Chevron is leading a lobbying and public relations campaign to undercut the California mandate aimed at curbing global warming, two years after the state started phasing it in. Research on commercially viable climate-friendly products has come to naught, stymied by the poor economics of coaxing hydrocarbons from plants’ stubborn cell walls, according to Chevron officials.

“We’ve looked at 100 feedstocks, 50 conversion technologies, worked to shape this law the best we can, and we have not come up with a solution to be able to comply,” said Rhonda Zygocki, Chevron’s executive vice president of policy and planning, in a Feb. 4 talk at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. Rick Zalesky, the Chevron official who celebrated the order’s signing with Schwarzenegger, was blunt last June when he declared the low-carbon standard “not achievable.”

While still promoting its commitment to renewable energy, the second largest U.S. oil company quietly shelved most of its biofuels work in 2010, according to internal documents and former Chevron officials. It decided products with potential returns of at least 5 percent weren’t enough for a multinational used to margins triple that, said Paul Bryan, a former vice president of biofuels technology.

Cutting Funding

“The best outcome for the oil companies is if nothing changes,” said Bryan, who left Chevron in 2010 after 15 years. “You can make money today making advanced biofuels — you just won’t make as much money as the oil companies would like.”

Chevron’s switch is part of the fossil fuel industry’s hardening line against efforts to supplant petroleum in the $500 billion U.S. transportation fuels market.

ExxonMobil Corp., the largest U.S. oil company, has also retreated from a biofuels effort. It slashed funding for research into making the fuel from algae, according to former employees involved in the project, and with Chevron is pressing California to postpone the low-carbon standard. In Europe, meanwhile, carbon credits for December plunged to an all-time low yesterday, making it cheaper for companies to buy the right to emit more carbon dioxide gas under the European Union’s system for controlling global warming.

‘Shockingly Small’

Like other major investor-owned oil companies, Chevron and ExxonMobil accept climate-change science and acknowledge carbon emissions contribute to global warming. They say they’re pushing back against the California rule because it demands technology that may not be available for years, and will cost jobs and send pump prices soaring if not rewritten.

The oil industry is lobbying to stop other states from following California. All the while, oil companies are dedicating few resources to the advances in biofuels they talk about needing to make, said Mary Nichols, head of the California Air Resources Board, which enforces the carbon rule.

“It’s shockingly small given their profitability,” Nichols said. “We’re dealing with companies with revenues in excess of the state of California.”

San Ramon, California-based Chevron had its second most profitable year in 2012, posting net income of $26.2 billion on $222.6 billion in sales, the vast majority from petroleum. California’s revenue in fiscal year 2012 was $87.8 billion.

Doomed Project

The company touts its biofuels program on its Facebook page and website. “It’s time oil companies get behind the development of renewable energy,” a headline on the website says. The text says a joint venture with Weyerhaeuser Co., Catchlight Energy LLC, is “working to commercialize advanced biofuels made from forest-based biomass.”

While Catchlight still exists, Chevron and the forest products company three years ago scratched a plan to spend more than $400 million and build commercial plants by 2014, according to an internal Catchlight business plan.

The plants were expected to generate a profit of 5 percent to 10 percent, according to Bryan and other former Chevron officials — short of the average 17 percent the company earns on capital investments, including oil and gas exploration and production, for which it has budgeted $33 billion this year.

The Catchlight plan was doomed when management decreed biofuels had to compete with fossil fuel projects for funds, said Bryan, a lecturer in chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. He said he left Chevron, taking a severance package during a staff downsizing, because he didn’t believe the company was committed to biofuels.

Too Ambitious

Chevron was optimistic when it worked on the low-carbon fuel standard with Schwarzenegger’s team in 2007, said Desmond King, president of Chevron Technology Ventures, which oversees emerging technologies. Former biofuels chief Zalesky, now the company’s general manager of crude and manufacturing strategy, was among several Chevron officials who helped craft the rule.

As the company put theory into practice, trying to make a propellant out of wood’s sugar-rich fibers, it realized the rule was too ambitious, King said. The research didn’t lead to anything that would be commercially viable, he said.

Even a 10 percent potential profit wasn’t attractive because the average payback from other projects is so much higher, he said. “It’s hard for Chevron to make major investments in anything that would be dilutive to its return,” he said. “It all comes down to getting good enough returns for our shareholders.”

Algae Fuel

Spending on biofuels has shrunk, he said, declining to give details. A leading producer of geothermal energy, Chevron expects to spend about $2 billion between 2012 and 2014 on renewable energy and energy efficiency, according to Morgan Crinklaw, a company spokesman.


To try to make algae fuel, Irving, Texas-based ExxonMobil said it would spend up to $600 million and hired Synthetic Genomics Inc. in 2009 to identify and modify algal strains that yield high amounts of oils. The oil company promoted the work in ads with a scientist saying, “We’re making a big commitment to finding out just how much algae can help to meet the fuel demands of the world.”

Research hit a snag in 2011 when a strain that made enough oil in a California greenhouse to meet a required milestone in the contract failed to perform in a pond at an ExxonMobil facility in Texas, according to J. Craig Venter, Synthetic Genomics’ chief executive officer and co-founder and one of the first scientists to sequence the human genome.

Long Term

ExxonMobil recast the contract, leading to layoffs of more than half the Synthetic Genomics employees working on biofuels for the oil company, according to former managers and scientists involved in the project. The effort now focuses on long-term research and development rather than commercial production, said Heather Kowalski, a spokeswoman for La Jolla, California-based Synthetic Genomics.

Charles Engelmann, a spokesman for ExxonMobil, declined to discuss details of the partnership or comment on the company’s opposition to the low-carbon rule’s timeline.

That’s being targeted by Fueling California, an advocacy group whose major funder is Chevron and that spent more than $327,000 in 2011 and 2012 lobbying on fuel and transportation policies, according to state disclosure forms.

The Air Resources Board’s Nichols said regulators haven’t been swayed by the arguments, among them that the economy will suffer if implementation of the rule isn’t delayed. “At this point we’re not seeing any need to change course,” she said.

Corporate Representatives

Both Chevron and ExxonMobil help finance the Houston-based Consumer Energy Alliance, which runs ad and Web campaigns warning low-carbon mandates could cost hundreds of thousands of jobs. After the alliance lobbied in New Hampshire last year, lawmakers passed a law prohibiting the state from participating in any low-carbon fuel program without legislative approval.

In January, the Washington-based American Legislative Exchange Council, which writes bills it recommends to legislators, endorsed a measure based on the New Hampshire law that it’s urging other states to adopt.

The council is made up of lawmakers and corporate representatives. Company memberships cost from $7,000 to $25,000 annually, and those that belong include ExxonMobil, the coal concern Peabody Energy Corp. and Koch Industries Inc., a chemical, textile, trading and refining conglomerate whose co- owners, Charles and David Koch, have supported the Tea Party.

Front Line

The council opposes government dictating Americans’ fuel choices, said Todd Wynn, director of the energy, environment and agriculture task force at the group. It also encourages legislators to repeal mandates — which exist in 29 states — requiring renewable energy from solar, wind and other sources to be part of the electric power mix.

This year, 30 bills to kill or weaken renewable rules have been considered in 16 states, according to the North Carolina Solar Center in Raleigh, which tracks such measures. None have passed so far.

California, the most populous state, is the front line: Emission controls enacted there since 1966 have been models for federal car-pollution and miles-per-gallon rules.

The state began to phase in the low-carbon standard in 2011. When it’s fully in effect in 2020, greenhouse gas emissions associated with transportation fuels are supposed to be 10 percent less than they were in 2010.

Transportation Mix

The state’s 32 million vehicles consume 15 billion gallons of gasoline each year, according to state data, and emit 160 million metric tons of greenhouse gases annually, 36 percent of all such emissions in California.

Right now, the state is on track to achieve the goal, according to Stanley Young, a spokesman for the Air Resources Board. Neither the agency nor Chevron and ExxonMobil will disclose how the companies are complying with the rule.

The U.S. government first spurred interest in biofuels, after President George W. Bush signed laws in 2005 and 2007 ordering more non-petroleum ingredients in the fuel supply.

The laws required refiners, importers and blenders to put 16.6 billion gallons of renewables into the mix by 2013. At least 1 billion gallons would have to come from cellulosic biofuels, which, unlike the widely used ethanol supplement derived from corn, are harvested from non-food crops, including switch grass and woody debris.

Fading Appetite

To meet its obligations, Chevron in 2008 teamed up with Weyerhaeuser to start Catchlight. Its goal was 17 plants by 2029, making 2 billion gallons annually, with spending of $370 million by 2013, according to a Catchlight business plan.

“There was a lot of enthusiasm that we would move forward on a path to develop something significant,” said Denny Hunter, Catchlight’s chief technology officer in 2008 and 2009 and a former vice president of technology for pulp, paper and packaging at Federal Way, Washington-based Weyerhaeuser.

Chevron’s appetite for biofuels began to fade after about a year, according to Hunter, Bryan and other former officials affiliated with Catchlight. A key reason, they said, was the shrinking federal cellulosic biofuels directive.

The laws Bush signed instruct the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to adjust requirements based on supplies, which have never reached the goal. The EPA’s cellulosic biofuels mandate for 2013 is 99 percent below the original target.

‘No Urgency’

Chevron’s biofuels plan wound up in the cross-hairs of cost analysts in 2009 when they determined it would be a better bet to buy renewable fuel credits rather than keep trying to make the product, according to Bryan and two other former employees who asked not to be identified because they were discussing confidential company information. Credits, purchased from the government or producers who exceed low-carbon obligations, allow non-reducers to abide by clean fuel regulations.

After the cost analysts’ report, the Catchlight budget was stripped of money for plants, said Hunter, the former chief technologist who said he retired in 2009 because he was unhappy with the joint-venture’s direction. Chevron “no longer wanted to be a leader in biofuels,” he said.

In April 2010, Chevron and Weyerhaeuser told Catchlight to ratchet back, according to an internal business plan that set the 2013 budget at $8.9 million — 98 percent lower than previously envisioned.

The Catchlight board said in the plan there was “no urgency” to commercialize and that, “in the absence of mandates,” the first plant “should be driven by financial returns.” The return on the investment would have to “meet or exceed” 20 percent, according to the plan.

‘Technical Winner’

That shocked scientists who were confident they’d come up with a process that would work, called solvent liquefaction, according to Jim Stevens, a chemist who researched technologies for 29 years at Chevron before being laid off in December 2010.

They’d constructed a contraption the size of a Winnebago that used a chemical solvent to turn woody biomass into fuel. It began producing in February 2010. “This was a real technical winner,” Stevens said.

Catchlight roughed out the numbers for a $504 million solvent liquefaction plant producing 92 million gallons a year at a cost of $2.18 a gallon, according to a 2010 internal report that laid out the technical and economic prospects for producing biofuels on a commercial scale. Making gasoline costs between $2 a gallon and $2.75 a gallon when oil prices are $70 a barrel to $100 a barrel, according to another Catchlight document.

‘Still Learning’

The joint venture never performed final tests on the biofuels process, Stevens said. “They just quit trying.”

Chevron hasn’t stopped working on developing biofuels products, according to Crinklaw, the company spokesman.

Taxpayers will help pay for future solvent liquefaction research. It will be conducted at Iowa State University with a $3.5 million federal grant covering 80 percent of the costs, and Catchlight the rest.

Catchlight is also supplying wood chips to Pasadena, Texas- based KiOR Inc., a biofuels producer that announced its first shipment of cellulosic diesel in March. Chevron has a contract to purchase some of KiOR’s renewable fuels. Weyerhaeuser is happy with the joint venture’s status, said David Godwin, vice president of minerals and energy products.

In October 2010, six months after Chevron and Weyerhaeuser put the brakes on at Catchlight, Chevron ran television and print ads about its work on non-petroleum fuels. “Something’s got to be done. So we’re doing it,” the ads said. “We’re not just behind renewables. We’re tackling the challenges of making them affordable and reliable on a large scale.”

Chevron officials didn’t respond to questions about the advertising campaign.

“We remain interested in the solvent liquefaction technology but, like other biofuels production technologies, it is early in its development, and we’re still learning about it,” Crinklaw said in an e-mailed statement. “Unfortunately, the technology hasn’t advanced as quickly as we hoped.”

Copyright 2013 Bloomberg

Lead image: Biofuels via Shutterstock

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