Big Oil's Hot Air Show On Global Warming

The CEOs of Big Oil gathered in Houston this week to proclaim that they finally get global warming and want to be part of the solution. The problem, of course, is when there's so much money in black gold, it's sure hard to go green.

The makeover is about image, not change in business practices. Even Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson could not make it through the opening address without trashing the sustainability of alternative fuels and boasting about big oil's beauty. Guess it's hard to suspend your disbelief when your oil company is making $4.5 million per hour.

The biggest scam this week is the boasts of oil executives claiming how much they are spending on "alternative energy." The estimates include the development of new fossil fuel sources and uses. It's like the tobacco industry bragging about its spending on cures for cancer, while the total actually includes the development of new cigarettes.

"Aternative energy" spending is usually one lump figure on oil company reports. For instance, BP lists "Gas, Power and Renewables" in its last profit report and Chevron lumps together renewables, other "alternatives" and energy efficiency projects in public statements. A first step toward greening the industry is for all the companies to separate true renewables from all other research and development.

The Houston meeting takes its cue from speaking tours this year by Conoco Phillips CEO James Mulva and Shell Oil Co. CEO John Hofmeister, hitting 35 to 50 smaller cities and towns from Reno, Nev., to Edwardsville, Ill., with speeches to rehab the image of oil companies in front of friendlier non-urban audiences.

Both use the same vague references to "alternative" energy spending. But on the subject of federal mandates, one quote from Mulva stands out:

"We support the goal of improving energy efficiency. But market forces and consumer preferences -- not federal mandates -- are the best way to meet these goals."

If market forces cannot drive down gasoline prices, it's sure unlikely that they will lead to a solution on global warming.

Without federal action, oil companies will not only continue to turn the planet into a hotter hell but soon bring the U.S., and particularly the Western states, another long spring and summer of $3-plus gasoline. The most useful thing Congress could do would be to "mandate" new anti-trust rules that comprehend that the industry is a cartel.

Without strong federal regulation -- including an antitrust update and requirements that oil companies put a portion of their outlandish profits into robust development of renewables -- meetings like this week's in Houston are just hot air.