I became very sensitive to the idea that energy may well be the most important problem facing the world when I attended a lecture by Richard Smalley in October of 2002. Rick, who died last October, was a Professor at Rice University and in 1996 received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of a new form of carbon called buckminsterfullerenes or "buckyballs."
In recent years Rick was relentless in his advocacy for cheap, plentiful, clean energy. He was passionate on the subject. In his articles and talks he pointed out that energy is directly linked to some of the top problems we face in the 21st century, such as water, food, poverty, transportation, terrorism and war, let alone the all important issues surrounding climate change and the environment. He felt that the energy challenge should serve as a wake-up call and inspiration to the next generation of scientists and engineers, as was Sputnik in the early 1960s.
In 2003, I was invited to join BP's Technical Advisory Council and quickly accepted, seeing it as an opportunity to both learn more about energy issues, as well as hopefully contribute in whatever modest way I could to the search for solutions. I was particularly happy to be associated with BP because the company has taken a strong, public position on the responsibility of industry to the environment and society.
BP's Chief Scientist Steve Koonin, who came to BP after a long, successful career as a Professor of Physics at Cal Tech where he also served as Provost, is a recognized expert on climate change and frequently speaks on the subject. In this recent interview, he cautions that "a set of public perceptions about the problem [greenhouse gas emissions and their link to climate change] and its solutions has developed, some of which are supported by scientific evidence, others of which are not," but then continues "My stance, and BP’s as well, is that it is unwise to be putting so much CO2 into the atmosphere, even if we don’t understand exactly what the impacts will be, so precautionary action is the sensible course to take. The real questions are: what can the world do to stop this, and will the world take those steps?"
BP's Group Chief Executive John Browne was a speaker at IBM's recent Business Leadership Forum in Rome. He talked about the need for innovation in the energy business to address the dual challenges of enhancing energy security by finding reliable supplies, and addressing climate change concerns by reducing the environmental impact of energy production and use. Lord Browne observed that “. . . innovation can help provide answers and help us to escape from the sense of fatalism which starts from a belief that climate change is such a huge global problem that there's nothing that can be done about it. That is wrong. There are lots of things that can be done.”
Last week BP made a very important announcement in the quest to find clean, renewable long term commercial alternatives to oil and gas, when it pledged to spend $500M over the next ten years to establish an Energy BioSciences Institute attached to a major university in the US or UK. This is the first research facility of its kind in the world dedicated to the new field of biofuels.
The new institute will focus initially on three key areas: developing new biofuel components and improving the efficiency and flexibility of those currently blended with transport fuels; devising new technologies to enhance and accelerate the conversion of organic matter to biofuel molecules with the aim of increasing the proportion of a crop that can be used to produce feedstock; and using modern plant science to develop species that produce a higher yield of energy molecules and can be grown on land not suitable for food production.
Initiatives like this one are very important, and not just because of the potential results that the Energy BioSciences Institute might come up with. BP's large, strategic commitment to biofuels, besides helping legitimize this new field, also encourages others – like universities, governments, other energy companies, and collateral industries like agriculture and biotech -- to get involved in biofuels and support research in the area. BP can contribute not just by supporting advanced research in energy biosciences, but by applying its expertise as one of the world's largest energy distribution companies to commercializing the results of the research and bringing them to market.
In the last couple of years, the world has been waking up to the critical importance of clean, plentiful energy and the need to focus our best resources to help us find innovative new solutions to the problem. Let me give a few examples.
Last year, MIT created the Energy Research Council "to assess the scope of MIT energy research, explore how to best match MIT expertise with global needs and produce a plan for a cohesive initiative to tackle the world’s energy crisis through science, engineering and education."
Following recommendations from the National Academies, such as those in the recent report Rising Above the Gathering Storm, the White House has launched the Advanced Energy Initiative to promote the development of reliable, affordable, environmentally-sound energy, and called for significant increases in funding for alternative energy research in the American Competitiveness Initiative.
Finally, in his New York Times Op-Ed columns, as well as in “The World is Flat”, Tom Friedman has been repeatedly calling for “a national science initiative that would be our generation’s moon shot; a crash program for alternative energy and conservation to make America energy-independent in ten years.”
The problems surrounding energy and the environment are immense. We truly need to search for innovative solutions of all sorts. BP's new energy bioscience initiative and the expanding efforts of other institutions are major steps in this direction.