10/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Is ExxonMobil Really the "Green Company of the Year"?

We Really, Really Hope So

It was hard, at first, to know whether the Forbes headline was tongue-in-cheek: ExxonMobil: Green Company of the Year.

But the story seemed sincere. Exxon is finally beginning to invest in renewable alternatives, putting $600 million into algae farms that would turn sunlight into automotive fuel. And the company is putting more effort than ever into developing and distributing natural gas.

Gas (methane) is unquestionably "greener" than Exxon's conventional oil products. As Forbes says:

"Per unit of energy delivered, methane releases 40% to 50% less carbon dioxide than coal and a quarter less than petroleum. Coal fuels half of U.S. power generation. Replacing all of it with methane would cut CO2 emissions by 1 billion tons a year."

Of course, Exxon isn't actually "replacing" anything. It's adding significantly to the global capacity to generate more greenhouse gases, even if some of the increase will come at a slower marginal pace.

Even the $600-million algae investment begins to pale when you put it into context. Exxon's five-year capital expenditure plan runs to $125 billion, almost all of it on conventional oil and gas infrastructure. The algae farm amounts to a commitment of less than half of one per cent.

Forbes is right that Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson has nudged his company away from the course of unrestrained climate destruction that was championed by his predecessor, Lee Raymond. And as the most profitable company in the history of companies, Exxon is in a position to do a huge amount of good (or to continue doing a huge, huge amount of damage).

"Green company of the year"? Not quite. Not yet.

But we'll keep hoping.