Guess who’s coming to Brainstorm Green?

FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference is more than just talk.

Ann Hand, the ceo of green-building startup Project Frog, recently told me that she met venture capitalist Chuck McDermott at the first Brainstorm Green in 2008. That helped lead to her current job. [See my blogpost, Project Frog’s Ann Hand: Disrupting construction ]

At Brainstorm Green 2010, Bill Ford, the chairman of Ford Motor, got to talking with Scott Griffith, the ceo of Zipcar. That helped bring about a Ford partnership with Zipcar to get Ford cars onto college campuses.

Later, Ford and Zipcar together invested in Wheelz, a car-sharing startup whose ceo, Jeff Miller, spoke last year at Brainstorm Green. [See my blogpost, Car sharing, revving up]

Brainstorm Green is about making the connections that help drive market solutions to environmental problems. The people and the issues have changed over the years but the theme has remained constant: How can corporate America help solve the world’s biggest environmental problems?

With some interesting tweaks to our format, a new and improved Brainstorm Green will be back in 2013. Dates are April 29-May 1, and we’ll be back at the spectacular Ritz Carlton Hotel in Laguna Niguel, CA. Our programming partners will be Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International.

We’ve been recruiting CEO-level speakers for a couple of months now, and have generated an enthusiastic response. Ted Turner, the legendary enterpreneur, environmentalist and philanthropist, has agreed to join us, and if you’ve never heard Ted speak, you’re in for a treat. [See my blogpost: Ted Turner: Telling it like it is] Ted is always entertaining but, more important, he’s nearly always right, whether the topic is global warming, nuclear disarmament or raising bison for his Ted’sMontana Grill restaurant chain.

Another headliner will be the big-thinking, green-minded (pun intended)  investor Jeremy Grantham, whose GMO asset management firm manages about $100 billion. “Global warming will be the most important investment issue for the foreseeable future,” Grantham wrote in a letter to his investors a couple of years ago. If you don’t know much about him, read this excellent profile from The New York Times Magazine. He’s a fascinating guy who, like Ted, has been ahead of the curve more often than not. [click to continue…]

Shell: We need tough fracking rules

Marvin Odum, the president of Shell Oil, made a revealing and insightful observation at the “Shell 2011 Energy Summit” last week in Houston.

“You are only as good as the worst operator in your industry,” he said.

Marvin Odum

He could have been talking about BP. Shell wants to drill offshore in Alaska, home to some of the richest undeveloped oil and gas reserves in North America, but there’s little chance of that so long as memories of the BP Deepwater oil spill remain fresh.

Or he could have been talking about the Tokyo Electric Power Co. Last month’s accident at Fukushima has cast a cloud over hopes for a global nuclear renaissance, fueling opposition to nukes from India to Germany to Minnesota.

In fact, he was talking about hydrofracking—the technology that will allow vast amounts of natural gas to be tapped from fields around the U.S., creating a boom in the shale fields of Wyoming, Texas, Louisiana and Pennsylvania.

But fracking, as it’s called, is controversial. When wells are improperly drilled, water supplies can become polluted. Some gas drilling companies won’t say what chemicals they are injecting into the shale to drive out the gas. Just last week, an unpublished study challenged the conventional wisdom that natural gas is a cleaner fuel than coal, arguing that the release of methane during drilling could aggravate global warming.

To head off the criticism, and clean up the highly-fragmented natural gas drilling industry,  Shell wants strong regulation of hydrofracking. The company says it will monitor its own wells carefully and disclose the chemicals it uses in its fracking fluids.  The goal, it appears, is to engage with critics and demonstrate to them that when well managed, fracking has benefits that far outweigh any harm. [click to continue…]

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste

After a long day on the conference circuit, I can report that the mood among business people is simultaneously grim (because of the economy) and hopeful (about the Obama administration and his economic team.) Today, I heard from, among others, Hank Paulson, Tom Friedman, Madeline Albright, management guru Jim Collins, Fred Smith (founder and CEO of Fedex), Ed Rendell and Carol Browner—how that’s for name dropping?—and chatted informally with a bunch of senior business execs at the FORTUNE 500 Forum and an earlier lunch at the Center for American Progress. The theme that’s emerging is the headline of this blogpost: That a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. That quote, by the way, is variously attributed to economist Paul Romer, Merck’s CEO Dick Clark, Obama aide Rahm Emanuel and Eric Schmidt of Google and it has become the cliché of the moment.

Some highlights from the palaver:

Paulson, as usual, stuck to his script, even during an unscripted q-and-a with FORTUNE’s Andy Serwer. He sounded less optimistic than he has before—clearly, he won’t be around as Treasury Secretary for long enough to see his tireless efforts to stabilize the financial system lead to a broader economic recovery. His “crisis” argument is that we need to better regulate financial institutions like hedge funds and instruments like derivatives, and come up with ways that unwind non-bank institutions so that future bailouts can be avoided. Paulson said, “We need to get to a place in this country where no institution is too big or too interconnected to fail.” He was quite gracious in his praise for his successor, Tim Geithner.

Friedman did his “green is the new red white and blue” shtick very well—hey, he’s been on tour for three months, he said, for his new book, Hot Flat and Crowded (which I liked but not as much as I wanted to). The Timesman cautioned that the economic crisis ought not to be used for government spending programs, even “green” ones, unless they lay a foundation for future growth. “We are charging this bailout on our kids Visa cards,” he said. “We owe it to them to spend the money wisely.” Friedman also said he was “disgusted” by the performance of auto executives who came to Washington on private jets to ask for government help, without a turnaround plan. “The term bail more than bailout represents how we should be thinking about them,” Friedman said. Ouch.

Albright, interviewed at a FORTUNE dinner at the state department, said bluntly, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen the world in such a mess.” (“That’s a diplomatic term,” she added.) She identified Pakistan as the hotspot that most concerns her because it has nuclear weapons, extremist groups, poverty, corruption and a weak government. (I won’t bring that up tomorrow, when I’m having dinner at the Pakistan Embassy.) But she, too, sees hope amidst the gloom: “Barack Obama’s election is the most amazing thing that could have been done for Brand USA.”

Rendell, the Pennsylvania governor, had a “green” idea that was new to me: Permanently ground the NY-D.C. airplane shuttles and replaed them with speedier Amtrak service. (Planes use more fuel and generate more greenhouse gases than do trains.) A side benefit: “Getting rid of the shuttle would ease congestion at LaGuardia, Newark, Philadelphia and BWI,” he said. He also said he’d heard that you can microwave tires to generate energy, to which Browner replied: “Don’t try that at home.”

Collins delivered a great talk on managing through turbulence at the FORTUNE forum that I won’t try to summarize. He did speak, as he often does, about the importance of core values—to companies and to people. “Those who prevail have a set of values that they go back to, no matter what the world throws at them, and they are not negotiable,” he said. The irony is that those who understand that their values trump even the need to survive have the best chance of coming through hard times. A company’s values and purpose, Collins said, provide “the answer to the question, why is it important that we continued to fight.?” He quoted advice given to him after he lost an academic job by management guru Peter Drucker: “The question is not how do you survive? The question is, how do you make yourself useful?” His final words to the crowd: “Go out and make yourself useful.”

Finally, I moderated what I thought was a lively discussion about energy policy at the FORTUNE forum with FedEx’s Smith, former Bush administration energy official Andy Karsner, Glenn Prickett of Conservation International and Shell Oil president Marvin Odum. There was a surprising degree of unanimity around what the Obama energy policy should be: figure out a way to put a price on carbon emissions (most favored a carbon tax over a cap and trade system), set stricter national standards for building and appliance efficiency, provide longer-term tax breaks for renewable energy and electric cars, and invest more in basic research. It was interesting to me to hear that degree of support for government regulation from a panel that (I’m guessing) was made up of three Republicans and one Democrat. Smith was the only one of the group I’d never met before, and I was impressed; he’s really thoughtful about the question of what markets can do well, and what they can’t, and has devoted lots of his own time to studying energy issues. I’d quote some things he and the others said but I’ve yet to learn how to moderate a panel and take notes at the same time. Happily, no one said that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.