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Stanford, Big Energy Team Up on Emissions

November 21, 2002|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

Stanford University and a group of giant energy corporations unveiled plans Wednesday for a research project that will spend as much as $225 million over the next decade to develop lower-emissions energy technologies.

The Global Climate and Energy Project will team one of America's premier research universities with ExxonMobil Corp., General Electric Co. and Schlumberger Ltd. in combating greenhouse gas emissions linked to global warming.

The project is expected to grow to include additional universities and companies.

It is by far the largest corporate-sponsored research project at Stanford and one of the largest at any U.S. university.

"This is a unique opportunity for Stanford to work on one of the most important problems we face as a global society and to have the kind of resources and the long-term commitment that will be necessary to make real progress," Stanford President John Hennessy said in a telephone interview.

"It's certainly a very dramatic acknowledgment that we have a fundamental conflict between the rising energy demands of the developing world and the need to sustain an environment that we can all continue to live in," he said.

Some environmentalists, while acknowledging that the Stanford project represents a potentially major contribution to energy research, reacted cautiously.

They said the project's donors operate fossil-fuel businesses that contribute to global warming, raising the possibility of conflicts of interest.

"I'm somewhat skeptical, given the history of some of the companies involved in this, that it represents a dramatic change in their resistance to aggressive federal and state policy action on the issue," said Alden M. Meyer, director of government relations for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

ExxonMobil, Meyer said, has been one of the leading skeptics on the issue of climate change.

"This could be seen as another effort [by ExxonMobil] to say, 'We're doing something, but this is a complex problem that's going to take decades to solve and, in the meantime, let's not do anything aggressive with fuel economy standards or anything else that actually reduces oil use today,' " he added.

In fact, the announcement reflected a bid for a market-based approach to environmental protection by a group of companies that in the past have thrived in the energy field and could be hurt by tighter government rules.

Hennessy said at a news conference at Stanford's campus in Silicon Valley that the backers of the project "recognize that solutions must meet the test of practicality and cost...."

"One of our roles will be to identify and overcome any barriers to success -- from safety issues to regulation, to the economics of implementation."

He cited an array of options for research, including some areas favored by industry and others endorsed by environmentalists.

Areas of Research

Those include electric power generation systems with low greenhouse gas emissions; renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power; and use of biomass fuels, which are derived from agricultural and other organic wastes.

But Hennessy also mentioned advanced nuclear power technologies, a field that raises deep concerns for some environmentalists.

Frank B. Sprow, vice president for safety, health and environment at Irving, Texas-based ExxonMobil, said that some ways suggested previously to address emissions-related climate problems "run the risk of impairing economic growth substantially, particularly in developing countries."

"We believe that cost-effective actions to address the risk of climate change must be pursued," he said.

"Steps must be in hand that are both environmentally sound and economic, so the critical need for economic growth and improvement in living standards is met worldwide."

Hennessy said various protections will ensure that Stanford's academic integrity is not compromised during the project.

"We select final research projects, and the faculty make their individual decisions to publish," he said.

"There is no ability by our sponsors to prevent publication."

Stanford has named Lynn Orr as project director. He has been dean of Stanford's School of Earth Sciences for the last eight years.

Orr's deputy director will be Christopher F. Edwards, a member of the Stanford faculty since 1995 and an associate professor in the thermosciences division of the mechanical engineering department.

Hennessy said the energy companies spoke with other universities before asking Stanford to lead the project.

Although Stanford has not yet talked with other universities about collaborating on the project, he specifically named the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a possible partner.

He said negotiations are near the final stages to include another energy company, Munich, Germany-based E.ON Energie Group, in the project.

ExxonMobil is the world's largest oil company, General Electric is a leading maker of power generators, and Schlumberger provides technology services for the oil, gas and utilities industries.

The project, Hennessy said, "is not completely unorthodox in that we've had other research collaborations funded by industrial consortia. But it is unorthodox in the scope and size of the initiative....

"It's a natural step, albeit a big one, beyond what we've had in the past."

One of the few corporate-sponsored research projects larger than the Stanford initiative is at the State University of New York at Albany.

In July, the university announced plans for a $400-million, five-year project to develop semiconductor research and facilities. Some of that project, however, is to be funded with state money.

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