Chevron. Sustainable. Really?

It’s not every day that one of the world’s biggest corporations files an ethics complaint against a little-known government official–in fact, if it’s happened before, I missed it–but that’s exactly what Chevron did last week in the state of New York.

The company accused Thomas DiNapoli, the state comptroller, who oversees the state’s pension fund, of accepting about $60,000 in campaign contributions from lawyers and supporters of people who are suing Chevron in Ecuador. The campaign donations, it is alleged, influenced DiNapoli to use his power as the trustee of  the pension fund, which owns Chevron stock, to push Chevron to settle the long-running, bitterly-fought lawsuit.

Imagine. Politicians being influenced by campaign donations.

Chevron would know about that. Last month, the company donated $2.5 million to the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC that supported House Republican candidates. The donation “appears to be the largest contribution from a publicly traded corporation to a political group” since the Supreme Court’s Citizen United ruling, The Washington Post reported. Chevron also spent nearly $15 million on Washington lobbying since the start of 2011, the Post said.

So…evidently, it’s fine for Chevron to lavish money on politicians but unethical for its opponents to do so.

As it happens, Chevron’s complaint against DiNapoli was not even the most surprising news about the company to surface last week. Even more unexpected was the announcement that Chevron was being added to the holdings of the NASDAQ OMX CRD Global Sustainability Index, a “benchmark for stocks of companies that are taking a leadership role in sustainability performance reporting.”

The NASDAQ CRD Index helps guide investors seeking companies that are more sustainable.  Just a few months ago, at the Rio + 20 confab, NASDAQ  and several other stock exchanges promised, along with the UN Global Compact, to “promote long-term, sustainable investment in their markets.”

But what does that mean when an index includes Chevron, America’s second-biggest oil company? [click to continue…]

Gee whiz, algae!

Big institutions can make mistakes, as we’ve learned, painfully, lately. (See BP, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, etc.) But when big corporations like Unilever, Chevron and Bunge  invest in a algae company that is also in business with the U.S. Navy, well, that’s a good reason to take notice.

The algae company is called Solazyme and, if nothing else, it’s notable for the range of products that its algae are able to produce: They include jet fuel, diesel fuel, super-healthy vegetable oils and other algal oils that become ingredients in soap, lotions, ice cream, cookies and mayonnaise.

Jonathan Wolfson, with algaeIn March, I met Jonathan Wolfson, Solazyme’s CEO, and came away impressed with his passion and smarts. (See Solazyme’s Amazing Algae.) So I called him again last week to talk a bit about the company’s latest round of investment and its backers. Besides Unilever, Bunge and Chevron, Sir Richard Branson and a big Japanese food-ingredient company called San-Ei Gen also invested.

“What you’re seeing with these investors is a very diversified set of partners,” Jonathan told me. “You start to see blue-chip investors who are validating the breadth of our technology platform.”

Solazyme raised about $60 million in its latest round of investment, Series D. It has raised about $150 million in equity, which is substantial but not as much as some competitors. Last year, for example, ExxonMobil said it was investing about $300 million in Synthetic Genomics, a startup led by scientist Craig Venter. Bill Gates has invested in Sapphire Energy, another algae startup.

But no algae company has put together as impressive a list of backers as Solazyme.  The Wall Street Journal reported that Unilever spent months testing Solazyme’s algal oil as a possible substitute for palm oil, which is controversial, in such products as Lux soap. It concluded that Solazyme can product algal oil at sufficient scale to become a viable supplier, the Journal said:

“This isn’t just a niche application,” says Phil Giesler, director of innovation for a Unilever unit that invests in new technologies. “This is something which we believe has tremendous capability.”

Bunge, meanwhile, is a huge agricultural firm,  a major producer of sugar cane and a distributor of vegetable oils. Solazyme’s algae can turn sugar cane into vegetable oils. “We’ve already produced oils using bagasse,” Wolfson said. (Bagasse is residue that remains after sugar is extracted from sugarcane stalks.)

For its part, Chevron invested in Solazyme last year, and put it more money this summer, presumably because it likes what it sees. Chevron wants to understand if algae can be an efficient way to produce transporation fuels, such as diesel and jet fuel.

Based in South San Francisco, Solazyme was founded in 2003 by Wolfson and Hamilton Dillon, a college friend. Its technology differs from most algae startups. Instead of growing algae in ponds using sunlight as an input, the company feeds cheap sources of biomass such as sugar cane or switchgrass to its algae and grows them in big tanks, most of them in a rented facility in rural Pennsylvania.

The company is getting substantial government as well as private-sector backing. The U.S. Department of Energy has given Solazyme a $22 million grant to expand production, and the Navy awarded the company an $8.5 million contract buy marine fuel.

Solazyme may have more news this week, Jonathan told me. If so, I’ll update this post or add a new one. This company is worth watching.

A historic win for green investors

ceres_logoSometimes, history is made quietly.

For decades, shareholder activists have filed dozens, if not hundreds, of resolutions with public companies asking them to improve their environmental policies and practices. Not one passed—until this year.

The breakthrough vote came in May at IdaCorp.,  a $988-million a year utility company and independent power producer based in Boise, Idaho. Despite the usual opposition from management, the owners of 51.2 percent of IdaCorp.’s shares voted to ask the company to adopt greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Hardly anyone noticed at the time because, well, it was Idaho and not even the shareholder activists expected a victory. “I expected a vote of about 25%,” said Michael Passoff of As You Sow, a nonprofit group that organized the investor vote.

Since then, the company responded. Legally, it didn’t have to act because, as you may know, most shareholder votes are “precatory,” a fancy legal term meaning that management can ignore even a majority of the company’s owners. In any event, IdaCorp. agreed to adopt goals for curbing the heat-trapping gases that cause global warming, issued its first request for a proposal for a wind farm and submitted a “smart grid” proposal, hoping to tap into the federal government’s stimulus money to upgrade the grid. [click to continue…]