ExxonMobil Corp., which environmental groups have long berated, is the “green company of the year,” according to Forbes Magazine. The reason, said the magazine, was the producer’s turn toward natural gas projects, along with a big bet on renewable technology.

“There’s a political approach and there is the engineer’s approach. ExxonMobil uses both,” wrote Christopher Helman. The cover story is slated for publication Aug. 24.

The “engineering solution” was ExxonMobil’s decision to expand its gas drilling operations, according to Forbes.

The company’s move to natural gas “comes into focus 7,900 miles away from its Irving, TX, headquarters, in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. There ExxonMobil is nearing completion of a $30 billion project to develop the world’s biggest natural gas field. Four giant plants, the biggest of their kind, will chill the gas into liquefied natural gas [LNG] for loading onto thermos-bottle tankers (also the biggest) and shipment to ports around the world” (see Daily GPI, Aug. 13).

“The Qatar megaproject will by next year boost ExxonMobil’s gas production 12% to 9.9 Bcf/d, and vault the company into first place as the world’s biggest natural gas producer not controlled by a government,” noted Helman. “All the big oil companies are drifting away from petroleum into natural gas, and for the same two reasons that Exxon is: Gas is cleaner-burning and still plentiful. With Qatar, Exxon has gotten ahead of its competition.”

With supply overflowing in the United States and prices low, gas may look “like a terrible business,” Helman wrote. But ExxonMobil has history on its side.

“We’re just doing what we always do,” Tillerson told Forbes. “Qatar LNG can pretty well compete with anything.”

ExxonMobil also has its eye on building gas dominance in the long-proposed Alaska gasline, which the company plans to build with TransCanada Corp. (see Daily GPI, Aug. 3). BP plc and ConocoPhillips are pursuing a similar plan.

The producer used a “purely political” approach in July, said Helman, when it announced it would invest $600 million in algae farms to make fuel (see Daily GPI, July 15).

“It takes a leap of faith to think tanks of algae can compete with oil wells, even allowing for the advantage that biofuels would have in a world of carbon permits (or carbon taxes),” Helman wrote. “But the algae project buys ExxonMobil some peace with environmentalists. Since taking the helm in 2006, ExxonMobil boss Rex W. Tillerson has worked hard to soften the company’s stance on climate change; he is not as gruff and forceful as his predecessor, Lee R. Raymond, in dismissing global-warming alarmists.”

In related news, ExxonMobil pleaded guilty in Denver federal court for violating federal laws designed to protect migratory birds, the Department of Justice (DOJ) said Thursday. The producer agreed to pay $400,000 in fines and $200,000 in community service payments for killing around 85 protected migratory birds in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Wyoming, said federal officials.

According to DOJ, waterfowl, hawks and owls died at company drilling and production facilities after exposure to hydrocarbons in uncovered natural gas well reserve pits and wastewater storage facilities.

ExxonMobil already has spent about $2.5 million to begin implementing an environmental compliance order. Over a three-year probationary period, ExxonMobil is required to implement the environmental compliance order to prevent birds from coming into contact with wastewater at the facilities, DOJ said.

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