October 29, 2008

ExxonMobil V.P. Ponders The Future of Fossil Fuels

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Yesterday afternoon Elissa Sterry ’81, the vice president of ExxonMobil’s Intermediates Chemical Company, returned to her alma mater to give a lecture about the future of the world’s energy dependence. Sterry’s presentation, entitled “The Outlook for Energy: A View to 2030,” turned into what she called a “conversation” with the 40 students and professors gathered in Anabel Taylor Auditorium.
“The world uses 245 million barrels of oil equivalent per day. By 2030, we see that number increasing to 325 million barrels per day; it’s an enormous challenge for our company and others to meet that demand. What’s going to meet that need? We see the energy mix becoming more rich and we feel that’s a good thing,” Sterry said.
According to projections from ExxonMobil, within the next two decades, the use of oil and coal will decrease slightly, with an increase in use of natural gas and a modest increase in the use of renewable energies. Sterry said that the company predicts a great increase in vehicle efficiency, with hybrid vehicles constituting 30 percent of new production. Sterry indicated that ExxonMobil’s partnership with Toyota was key in funding the Global Climate and Energy Project, a $250 million grant encouraging scientists to research breakthrough, world-scale energy technologies.
Throughout Sterry’s presentation, members of the audience interjected with questions and criticism about ExxonMobil’s interpretation of the world’s future energy dependence and its investments in renewable energy sources. One audience member asked about the possible conflict of interest for the oil company as it invests in and encourages renewable energy sources.
“ExxonMobil is focused on oil and gas in the short term; we don’t know as much about solar energy and got out of that industry. Oil and gas is our business niche — we think that other people are better suited to meet the demand for alternative fuels, and we don’t see this as a conflict of interest. There’s going to be plenty of demand for both,” Sterry responded.
ExxonMobil’s projections about the future state of energy dependence also predict a 10-percent reduction in CO2 emissions, if energy from nuclear or Carbon Capturing and Sequestration sources replace coal plants after 40 years of use.
“I flat out don’t believe her numbers about gas, oil and coal in the future; they’re too optimistic. I don’t see Americans cutting back on coal, and we’re not replacing old coal plants with other energy sources,” Jesse Rorabaugh grad said. “Overall, though, I think the big picture of the presentation is probably right, though, and that’s really sad. We could do something better, institute more renewable energy, but there’s no political will to do so.”
In an interview, Sterry said that she did not feel overly challenged by the audience’s skeptical questions and emphasized her desire to engage in a dialogue with universities and researchers. “My mission is to find the people to help us think this through and develop necessary technologies,” Sterry said.
During the presentation, an audience member pointed out that projections from both Barack Obama and John McCain regarding reductions in fuel emissions and increases in renewable energy sources seem very ambitious compared to those from ExxonMobil.
“Yes, McCain’s numbers are very ambitious, I agree,” Sterry said. “It can happen, though, with forced regulatory restrictions. But is that for the best, is it something that the public can swallow — people don’t like paying $4.40 for a gallon of gas and they won’t like seeing their home heating bill double in the next year.”
“If I could go back in time and change anything about energy policy, I would like to see a policy that is consistent over a long period of time, and doesn’t change from administration to administration,” Sterry said in an interview.
In response to questions about the economy and the trade implications of oil, Sterry commented, “How do we get more energy independence? By increasing oil drilling in the U.S., which will require changes in public opinion and policy.”
Last year ExxonMobil, which currently employs 81,000 people, drew in $41 billion in revenue. Sterry stated that the company actually consumes more oil than it produces.
“We’re a huge purchaser of oil and gas. We think it’s a good thing when we make money, because lots of other people make money with us.” Sterry said.
David Wolf grad helped to organize the lecture as a part of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists monthly series. “We always try to invite a speaker from a petroleum or oil-based background, but lately we’ve been trying to move more towards global energy needs, which is what this presentation is part of,” Wolf said.
On Nov. 7 and 8 the Law School will offer further discussion on energy dependence at a Sustainability Conference on campus.