WASHINGTON - A few U.S. businesses are beginning to take practical steps to deal with what their managers regard as a real and potentially dangerous trend - global climate change.
These companies have concluded that the spread of carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse" gases - through the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil - could produce devastating worldwide changes in temperature and precipitation. They fear this "global warming" will be harmful to the environment - and also to the corporate bottom line.
Some of the corporate steps are tentative, and they come at a time when most U.S. companies are still spewing out carbon dioxide without thinking much about its potential costs. Indeed, representatives of the U.S. coal, oil and utility industries are vigorously opposing a Clinton administration plan to seek binding limits on releases of greenhouse gases. But there are signs, too, of changing business attitudes toward global warming.
At Mobil Corp., for instance, there have been staff-level discussions about whether the company should track its emissions of carbon dioxide. Mobil hasn't yet reached any decision on the matter, a spokesman said.
But some are more concrete. Monsanto Co., the chemical and biotechnology company, has begun measuring its own CO emissions. "If you look at the kind of businesses Monsanto is in, the economic consequences of even a slightly warmer world are pretty devastating," said Kate Fish, director of public policy for the St. Louis-based company.
"We depend on farmers to a large part, and farmers depend on things like stable weather patterns and soil moisture content," she said. "Extreme weather patterns are daunting."
Because of that, the issue of global warming is taken seriously by senior management at the company, she said. "The first step is where are you with CO emissions," she noted. Although environmental laws require companies to keep track of other emissions - such as sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide - carbon dioxide emissions have been "free," she noted.
Other companies have studied ways to offset or reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. AES Corp., a company that builds independent power generating plants, has in several cases in the past planted trees or bought endangered forests - because the trees will help absorb carbon dioxide produced by the power plants.
Northeast Utilities, the largest electric utility in New England, joined in a voluntary federal program to reduce emissions. The company reported last month that it had limited CO emissions to 11.1 million tons systemwide in 1995 - even lower than the target it had set, of 14.7 million tons.
Dow Chemical Co. has established a goal of improving energy efficiency at a rate of 2 percent per year, per product manufactured, according to Paul Cicio, the company's manager of government relations, hydrocarbons and energy policy. This is one of a series of global environmental goals the chemical company has established, he said.
"The most important way companies improve energy efficiency is when they build new facilities," Cicio said. For instance, a new plant in Alberta, Canada, which produces ethylene - the basic raw material for the production of plastics - is 30 percent more efficient than a similar plant built just 17 years ago.
"The key is looking for projects that accomplish the best of both worlds - the ones that allow us to make a return for our shareholders and also to improve the environment," he said. "That doesn't happen by accident."
And other companies have achieved greenhouse-gas-reducing energy efficiency in the course of pursuing other goals. Carrier Corp., for instance, was looking for a new type of chiller to replace an old technology that relied on ozone-depleting chlorine. The company chose to skip over an interim generation of chillers that would still have used the ozone-depleting chemical.
Instead, it went directly to an alternative that used no chlorine at all, according to Matt Chadderdon, vice president for government relations for the United Technologies Corp. subsidiary.