BP Invests in Biofuel Research – Are Oil Firms Coming Around?


In the midst of certain lobbyists’ underhanded attempts to prevent climate change legislation, one oil giant, BP, has joined the biofuel-research-by-oil-firms club. BP recently invested $10 million in a joint project investigating new techniques for converting sugar into biodiesel. BusinessGreen.com reports that, according to BP Biofuels Chief Executive Philip New, the project will allow BP to deliver sustainable, economic, and scalable biodiesel supplies. Granted, this could easily be “we’re sustainable – really!” rhetoric, or a cursory attempt to appear environmentally concerned. After all, who really knows a corporation’s true intentions? If BP is sincere, though, its research could contribute significantly to the evolution of a sustainable energy mentality. Yet could investment in biofuels by a well-known oil firm undo the economic and environmental damage of years of investing in unclean fuels? And could BP’s investment be a sign that oil firms in general are starting to come around?

Last week, BP signed a partnership with Martek Biosciences Corporation, a fermentation technology firm that develops healthcare products derived from algae. Together, the companies will develop a large-scale, cost-effective project involving the use of algae to convert sugars into lipids, which can then be converted into biofuels. (Importantly, this approach is distinct from those that use algae as feedstock to create biofuel.) The project is expected to help BP reach its goal of identifying sustainable biofuels that do not draw on food crops and use bio-leftovers (e.g. sugar cane waste, energy grasses, and wood chips) for fermentation.

As for true intentions, the project is, at least, not BP’s first biofuel endeavor, and it is part of a greater systemic approach. (BP apparently has “other strategic choices for biofuels,” according to the BusinessGreen report, and it provides solar energy to consumers. Moreover, New described the project as “part of our approach of integrating sugar cane and lingocellulosic biofuels with advanced technologies to produce products with a wide range of uses.”)

Interestingly, though BP also has its own definition of sustainability: “the capacity to endure as a group” by renewing assets, creating and delivering better products and services that meet the evolving needs of society, and contributing to a sustainable environment. Vague terms, indeed. And, its stated strategy and techniques are somewhat contradictory: while it seeks to produce energy in an affordable, secure, and environmentally non-destructive way, it does so by participating “across the hydrocarbon value chain” ( “producing more fossil fuel resources” while somehow “transitioning to a low-carbon future”).

In conclusion, the answers to my questions in the first paragraph are probably gray-greenish in hue. BP is not a renewable energy firm, and, as such, whatever sustainable techniques it has are invariably mixed in with unsustainable ones. And, environmentally speaking, the damage is already done. I guess the answers boil down to issues of expectations and perfectionism: how high up on the green scale does a company have to rate to get a sustainability check mark, and can we be satisfied with a “baby steps” approach to achieving sustainability? (I speculated on this topic in a previous post on Greenpeace’s recognition of McDonalds’ efforts to go green.)

What are your thoughts on the matter?

Sarah Harper is a professional writer based in San Francisco, California. Her interests include sustainability, government policy, and international politics. In her free time, Sarah enjoys toying with the idea of holistic health, overanalysis, and plotting world exploration.

One response

  1. The involvement of these top international corporations in algae biofuel sends a strong message that Algae is a viable energy option for the future!

    At the upcoming 2nd Algae World Asia in Bangkok, a roundtable discussion will offer an objective overview of where the industry stands today, and what needs to be achieved for commercialisation.

    Entitled, “ALGAL BIOFUELS – ROAD TO FULL-SCALE COMMERCIAL OPERATION” the roundtable discussion will touch on:

    How to achieve target production costs?
    Transitioning from pilot test to commercial production – How to avoid the “Valley of Death”
    What business models will give appropriate returns?
    Project development risks and challenges
    Vertical Integration or Geographical Expansion?
    Technology Licensing or International Partnerships?
    Forming strategic partnership in the value chain
    Algae Biofuels will continue in their mercurial rise as the most ‘high profile’ algae application in the algae business today. 2nd Algae World Asia looks beyond the hype to examine the real picture, and pinpoint key opportunities and challenges.

    For further information on this event, Please contact injleep@cmtsp.com.sg

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