Inside two half-million-gallon tanks built in the 1950s, a team of microorganisms is preparing to munch its way into the annals of energy innovation.
Late this month, the microbes will start transforming truckloads of restaurant grease into electricity for a water pollution control plant in Millbrae, Calif. The one-of-a-kind setup relieves the city and area eateries of a fatty disposal headache while saving energy. And it has come with the help of a surprising backer: Chevron Corp.
"You don't think of a big energy company being involved in anything but gasoline," said Dick York, superintendent of the Millbrae plant. "But Chevron is really trying to diversify. Working together, we've brought forward a project ... that puts waste to work."
It's a small undertaking for a company that takes in millions of dollars in profit each day from selling oil and natural gas, not saving them. But it's part of a growing portfolio of projects backed by some of the biggest oil companies to wring energy from the sun, wind, water and waste.
Royal Dutch Shell has become one of the world's largest developers of wind farms and is part owner of two in California. Chevron operates massive geothermal plants in Indonesia and the Philippines. And BP is a partner in hydrogen power plants proposed for Carson and Scotland.
Energy executives point to such endeavors as proof that oil companies are part of a global push to rein in pollution and boost alternatives to oil and natural gas.
"We think it's important to get things done when it comes to climate change," BP Chief Executive John Browne said in an interview. "If you weigh in the balance what we've done, and what we continue to do, I think it amounts to something very significant."
Critics dismiss the efforts as "greenwash" -- using environmentally friendly programs to draw attention away from unfriendly activities.
"If you look at what they are doing in terms of any kind of renewable fuel, it's swamped by a factor of 100 by what they are doing to continue to exploit fossil fuel resources," said Roland Hwang, vehicles policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "If they want to have real green credentials, they need to support real policies to ensure that we can develop cleaner fuels [and] they have to support emission standards on global warming pollution."
Hwang sees Proposition 87, which would tax California oil producers to fund biofuel research, as a test of the oil companies' resolve. "They've failed miserably. They're fighting it tooth and nail," he said.
The measure's supporters say it would reduce dependence on foreign oil and create jobs in new energy ventures; opponents say it would increase oil prices and fund a state energy-research bureaucracy with no guarantee of results.
San Ramon, Calif.-based Chevron, the state's largest oil producer, is the most vigorous opponent, spending an estimated $22 million to persuade voters to reject Proposition 87 in November. Other big contributors are Aera Energy, a joint venture of Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil Corp., and Westwood-based Occidental Petroleum Corp.
In addition, none of the oil companies stood with California as it embarked on its groundbreaking move to reduce greenhouse gases. The state's ambitious Global Warming Solutions Act, signed into law Sept. 27, faced resistance from the region's largest oil industry trade associations.
"I think critics are reasonable in saying, 'Where's the walk behind the talk?' " said Nicholas Eisenberger, managing principal at GreenOrder, a New York environmental strategy and marketing firm. But, he added, "these resource-based questions, they don't get solved overnight."
A Chevron spokesman declined to discuss the company's oil tax stance, but Chief Executive David O'Reilly recently explained Chevron's opposition to the greenhouse gas law.
"We support the first step of measuring" greenhouse gases, O'Reilly said in an interview. "I think it would be better, from a state competitiveness standpoint, if we could get a similar approach to dealing with carbon emissions across the whole country." He said California "ought to be careful about launching off something in the state that divides us from the rest of the country."
BP's renewable-energy efforts have been the most visible, in part because its "Beyond Petroleum" advertising campaign has for years been highlighting the firm's accomplishments.
The London-based company is a leader in harnessing the sun's power. Its solar subsidiary is a top manufacturer of solar panels and equipment and it has installed solar systems in 100 countries. In California, the company has funded solar research at Caltech, installed a solar power system at a water pumping station in Vallejo and sold home solar systems through Home Depot.