Big Oil

By Ron Kotrba | October 24, 2011

It is easy to vilify the petrochemical companies as profit-hungry despots that embody everything advanced renewable fuels and biobased chemicals stand against. They spend untold amounts of money to locate biomass with an extremely long life cycle, crude oil, far underground or beneath the sea, and drill, baby, drill. In a perfect world, fracking fluids would not compromise pristine soils; there would be no explosions miles offshore that kill humans, pollute our waters, cause slow, agonizing death for wildlife, and destroy countless communities.

But, obviously, we don’t live in a perfect world. And despite the seemingly antagonistic relationship between Big Oil and the biorefining community, perhaps no sector is moving advanced biofuel and biobased chemical development faster and further than the oil industry. As John Huber, head of the National Oilheat Research Alliance, said during the Bioheat Northeast Workshop in Pittsburgh last month, as time progresses, extracting these hydrocarbons from the ground becomes harder and harder—and more expensive—thus, the oil companies must diversify their portfolios if they intend to sustain. Likewise, many biorefining startups have found that Big Oil’s deep pockets, technical mastery, engineering experience and logistical prowess are essential to their survival and prosperity. To exemplify this, look at Houston, Big Oil Central. The city is also home to the most densely populated conglomeration of biorefining startups—and it’s not by coincidence.

Oil has given us a model to follow for what an efficient, profitable refinery should be. A refinery takes in crude oil and puts out numerous energy products. Scale this model down, decentralize it and substitute in biomass with a much shorter life cycle than crude oil, and what you have is the quintessential biorefinery. There is no better way to leverage a century-and-a-half’s worth of oil industry experiences, bad and good, than funneling it into tomorrow’s more responsible energy paradigm.

Author: Ron Kotrba
Editor, Biorefining Magazine