Clearing the air? Oil industry consortium hopes Stanford research on ameliorating global warming will also stimulate the next generation of energy production.

Industry to Tackle Climate Change

An international consortium of energy companies intends to pump up to $225 million over the next decade into a climate change and energy project led by Stanford University. Researchers say they are stunned by the size and scope of the effort to study ways to reduce global warming.

Stanford and industry officials say that the data derived from the effort will be publicly available, and that an independent advisory board will help chart the project's direction. “Absolutely nothing is off the table; we want all areas addressed,” says Frank Sprow, vice president for safety, health, and environment at ExxonMobil. Even skeptics of industry welcome a broad research effort. “This is an acknowledgement that global warming is a problem they can no longer ignore,” says Dan Lashof of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C.

Although energy companies have long funded academic research programs, the scale and structure of the effort are unprecedented. ExxonMobil will contribute $100 million to the project. General Electric and E.ON, an energy provider based in Düsseldorf, Germany, will provide $50 million each. Schlumberger, a global oil-drilling equipment company, will pitch in $25 million. University officials will hand out $20 million during the project's first 3 years, roughly half to Stanford researchers and the remainder primarily to other academic scientists. The university will hold title to any patents, although the funding sponsors will have a short period to negotiate licenses before the discoveries are up for grabs. The first funding likely won't begin flowing until the end of next year.

Companies were attracted to Stanford because of its strengths in earth sciences and engineering and its tradition of interdisciplinary work, say industry representatives. Outside energy experts add that the university's stature should ease fears that the project will be tilted toward a hydrocarbon-biased approach.

The scientific and engineering agenda has yet to be finalized, but the focus will be on ways to lower greenhouse emissions in the short run while exploring how to convert the world's energy system to less polluting fuels and technologies, says Lynn Orr, a petroleum engineer at Stanford, who will lead the project. “This is one of the grand challenges of the century,” says Orr.

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