After the Deepwater Horizon spill, talk of alternative energy has surged. Should we be working harder to get rid of oil dependence? Can we make drilling safer? And how will we do it? Finding answers to these questions can be a challenge, since few talking heads have much real, practical knowledge to fall back on. But today, The Washington Post runs an op-ed jointly authored by Deborah Gordon, a former Chevron chemical engineer, and Daniel Sperling, the director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis. They say the first thing that we should know about future energy sources is that companies like BP and Chevron--i.e. big oil--are never going to be the ones leading the way. They're high on alternative energy rhetoric, but low when it comes to ability to deliver.

OIL COMPANIES' ALTERNATIVE ENERGY RHETORIC

In addition to BP's "Beyond petroleum" slogan, there's Chevron's "Finding newer, cleaner ways to power the world," Shell's "Let's pass energy on to the next generation" and ExxonMobil's "Taking on the world's toughest energy challenges."

But no matter how much these companies say they want to find more environmentally sensitive, renewable sources of energy, their basic strategy is still to make as much money as possible by sticking more holes in the ground in search of more fossil fuel.


THEIR BIOFUEL INVESTMENT
The oil industry's involvement in biofuels is best characterized as a fallback plan in case the world's governments implement aggressive climate policies or OPEC and other oil-rich nations--where state-owned oil companies reign supreme--further restrict foreign access to oil.

WHY WE CAN'T DEPEND ON OIL COMPANIES TO DEVELOP NEW TECHNOLOGY

Big Oil is fundamentally mismatched to the project of developing alternative fuels. The corporate culture and core competence of oil companies favor large, centralized investments; these conglomerates are skilled at building massive structures and investing enormous amounts of capital in pursuit of oil.


WHY THERE ISN'T ENOUGH INVESTMENT IN NEW TECHNOLOGY

If the major energy companies don't embrace alternative energy, where will the hundreds of billions of dollars come from to develop and launch renewable fuels? The venture capital community is investing heavily in biofuel technology, but those sums are still tiny compared with what's needed--and compared with the resources available to oil companies. The large food-processing companies that have played a central role in the expansion of the ethanol fuel industry haven't stepped up to the plate, either.