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Panel explores energy options

By Jeff Kiger

jkiger@postbulletin.com

Oil reserves. Greenhouse gases. Ethanol. Gas taxes. Compressed natural gas. Coal-fired energy plants. Subsidies. Biodiesel. Nuclear power.

The topics ranged far and wide Thursday night as about 200 people took part in a Conversation on Energy panel discussion hosted by the Houston, Texas-based oil company ConocoPhillips.

Under glowing chandeliers in the Radisson Plaza Hotel, the discussion included passion and numbers in equal measure.

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So why is the oil giant conducting town hall discussions in communities across the country, and why choose Rochester?

"Our industry has lost touch with the public. We did a poll, and we found our credibility was below the tobacco industry," said Conoco’s Bob Ridge in his opening statement. "We want to listen."

The crowd, many well-versed on energy issues, had a lot to ask him and other panelists. A biodiesel supporter asked how ConocoPhillips’ renewable diesel product, created with animal fats from Tyson Foods, is helpful when it creates the same emissions as diesel, and why it gets a $1 a gallon federal subsidy like biodiesel plants.

ConocoPhillips and Tyson’s plan to add fats to refineries to create diesel is to start later this year. The Internal Revenue Service’s move to make the project eligible for a tax break used primarily by the biodiesel industry attracted some criticism.

"Yes it creates emissions, and yet it is renewable. We are taking something that is a waste today and converting it to fuel," he said. "Without the tax credit, it is not economical to pursue."

Sabrina Watkins, ConocoPhillips manager of advanced technology, said using the animal products allows the company to use its existing infrastructure to create a "blended product."

The youngest questioner, a boy of about 12, delivered the final and possibly most pointed question of the night. Earlier in the evening, Ridge and Watkins had pointed out that Conoco had doubled its budget for research.

"Is spending about eight-tenths (of a percent) of your assets enough to spend on research for a company with $182 billion?" he haltingly asked at his father’s urging.

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After the applause and laughter died down, Ridge responded that his company made $3.5 billion in the first quarter of 2007 with about a 10 percent profit margin. It reinvested $10 million in 2007, and 50 percent of its capital budget is going to research.

Watkins said that doubling the research and development budget last year was important as the company pushes for alternative energy.

"And Bob can expect an even bigger request this year," she said.

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