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BP scientist: To cut oil use, make carbon expensive

Even with big investments in biofuels and other alternative energies, BP's chief scientist sees rapid growth in fossil fuels because of growing demand.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Everyone from politicians, investors, and consumers tout the potential of solar and wind technologies.

But even BP, a company that changed its tagline to "Beyond Petroleum," sees renewable energy as a very small piece of the global energy picture--a situation that's not likely to change in the coming decades, according to BP's chief scientist, Steven Koonin.

Koonin spoke here on Monday to Massachusetts Institute of Technologies' energy student fellows, part of a campuswide initiative to promote technology innovation in energy.

BP is perhaps the most high-profile oil and gas company to take alternative energy seriously.

But Koonin said that changing from BP's core oil and gas exploration business is a slow process, given that demand for liquid fuels continues to go up.

"We're trying (but) it's not easy to change things...You can't cut off the present," he said. "Deployment of energy innovations (in the oil and gas industry overall) is very hard because of entrenched interests."

He said that climate regulations that put a price on emitting carbon dioxide would incent energy companies to invest in low-carbon energy sources.

"The only way you're going to get a shift off of this is through a price on carbon," Koonin said. A carbon tax or cap-and-trade system would act the same way that a rise in gasoline prices has prompted many people to conserve, he said.

"The question is whether it will be high enough...It needs to be high enough to hurt to get people to do something different," Koonin said.

He noted that Europe already has climate regulations in place, and the U.S. is likely to adopt its own. At the same time, he said "it was hard to imagine" the fast-growing economies of China and India having costly limits on carbon emissions.

In his talk, Koonin listed a number of technologies that BP is exploring or funding research in, including biofuels, underground carbon storage, and various means of improved oil and gas exploration.

BP researchers are exploring under-ice drilling in the Arctic, building more robust drilling platforms, more environmentally benign methods to extract oil from tar sands, and hydrogen production.

"Technically, there are lots of opportunities in conventional fossil fuels," he said.

At the same time, BP is investing a billion dollars to establish a biofuels business and is pushing into wind power. It has also done a handful of tests in carbon capture and sequestration, where large amounts of carbon dioxide are stored underground.

Carbon storage is a technology that could be an important option for reducing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, but it also faces a number of technical challenges, such as safe storage, Koonin said.

BP is also researching energy storage for renewable energy and advanced photovoltaics, although Koonin predicted it would be decades before they would make a major impact on worldwide energy use.

One of the most promising research paths is the intersection of biology and energy. BP, for example, is looking at how enzymes in cows and other ruminants can sequester carbon, he said.

"Beyond Petroleum was once an advertising slogan when I came in (in 2004). We're trying to do something about it now," he said.