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GE's Jeff Immelt (center) discusses the greening of industry with two WSJ staffers.

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GE's Jeff Immelt (center) discusses the greening of industry with two WSJ staffers.


ECO:nomics Begins at Bacara

Multinational Execs Consider the Business of Going Green in Landmark Conference


The world’s most powerful multinational executives have converged on the outer edges of Goleta to consider a most pressing issue for industry and the world at large: How to make lots of green while going green. The three-day “ECO:nomics” conference, hosted at Bacara Resort & Spa and sponsored by the Wall Street Journal, is being attended by the heads of General Motors, Dow Chemical, Wal-Mart, Duke Energy, and Edison International-among many other global corporations-as well as representatives for the three remaining presidential candidates, members of the environmental community, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. It got into full swing on Wednesday night with cocktails, dinner, and a conversation with Jeffrey Immelt (pictured above center), the chairman and CEO of General Electric.

After WSJ publisher Robert Thomson explained, “There is hardly a government anywhere in the world that’s not acting, or agonizing” about environmental policies, Immelt joined two WSJ staffers on stage, which was decorated much like a television talk show set: modernist white couches, angular black tables, and a deep red urn were laid against a vibrant, nightclub-blue backdrop. Immelt, who’s known to be one of the more forward-thinking multinational execs, quickly got comfortable, and unleashed his honest, energized, no-holds-barred take on the state of industry going green. “I’m an investor, I’m a capitalist, and I’m a businessman,” Immelt asserted proudly, and then proceeded to rip the snail’s pace of industry in adopting green practices.

We live today in a certain kind of hell where nothing’s happening,” said Immelt, referring to the lack of innovation by the industry and the lack of meaningful regulation or incentives by the government. After nearly three decades at GE, Immelt - who looks and speaks in a manner reminiscent of Bill Clinton - said, with no small hint of frustration, “I still sell the same energy products I sold 26 years ago,” later adding, “”We’re selling the same light bulb Thomas Edison invented over 100 years ago.” He’s annoyed that the conversation on nuclear and coal gasification technologies is stalled, explaining, “It’s like going to the Super Bowl, but both teams never came out of the locker room.” It’s not enough to wait for the government to force change, said Immelt, because “by the time it becomes law, you’re five years late:.Do we get ahead of it or do we get it thrust on us in an incredibly impossible way?”

Immelt warned all the CEOs and corporation presidents in the audience, “Don’t stick your head in the sand!” He believes that “technology is the answer,” and that now “is a great opportunity for the country to develop technologies that will be used” all over the world. “I think clean energy is one of the best export stories this country has today,” said Immelt.

Echoing many environmentalists, Immelt said that diversity is the answer, and that conservation is the most important step. But unlike those same environmentalists, Immelt is very much in favor of nuclear energy and more technologies.

As the conference continues today, March 13, and into Friday, March 14, topics include “Beyond Hydrocarbons,” “Shareholders: How Much Green Do they Want?,” “Ethanol: Reality or Hype?,” “Oil: The End of an Era?,” and “Going Nuclear: Panacea or Pipe Dream?” This evening, representatives from the Obama, Clinton, and McCain campaigns will discuss their energy policies.

Stay tuned for more. See independent.com/eco-nomics for all our reporting.

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