Former BP executive alumnus Cynthia Warner left Big Oil for Big Algae

Cynthia Warner

As the former head of global refining for BP, alumnus Cynthia Warner was one of Big Oil’s highest-ranking woman executives until she abandoned petroleum to become president of a small San Diego-based alternative-energy firm, Sapphire Energy in 2009.

Warner has more than 27 years of experience in the energy, refining and transportation industries and was featured in a lengthy Fast Company article two weeks after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.

Warner, known as CJ, told Fast Company she was never directly involved in drilling and couldn’t represent herself as an expert on this. But as efforts to halt the spill failed, phone calls, text messages, and emails from the network Warner built during her years in the oil business kept her in touch with what she calls the “huge drama underneath the surface — all the technical people who are working night and day, trying to figure out what to do. This one is really tough because it’s extremely deep water.” In such challenging situations, “it is just so much harder to resolve any problems that arise.”

And that difficulty, she says, was at the heart of her decision to leave Big Oil. “They have to drill this deep because it’s getting harder and harder to find new sources of oil. The harder you work to find additional crude, the more environmental impact there is. What this does from a big perspective is illustrate the urgency of continuing to work to get solutions that are more in harmony with the earth’s cycles and more controllable.”

A chemical engineering major at Vanderbilt, Warner has become known for a collaborative approach to leadership even as she has fought against attempts to limit her career because of her gender. “I was kind of at that front end of the women’s-lib movement, where we started thinking everything is going to be equal,” Warner told Fast Company. “My graduating class at Vandy was 10% women. But many of them dropped out as I was going on in my career. They were perfectly capable, but you just get tired of competing and having to prove yourself for the 15-millionth time.”

She set her sights on the oil industry, attracted by its technical challenges and by the teamwork required to get good results in such a complex business. During her 10-year career with BP she held numerous leadership roles including overseeing refining operations in five continents and developing long-term technology strategies for low carbon and sustainable fuels. Warner led the groundbreaking cooperative effort with the US EPA to shape a framework for Clean Air improvements which was eventually signed on by the entire US Refining industry.

In February 2009, she made the leap truly “beyond petroleum,” landing at a Sapphire Energy. At Sapphire Energy, Warner is tasked with driving the company’s initiative to transition technology trials and research into commercial-scale crude oil operations. Using only sunlight, CO2 and non-potable water, Sapphire Energy’s production of Green Crude is the environmental and economically wiser renewable option for replacing petro-based gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.

The alternative-energy firm is building a demonstration plant in New Mexico that aims to commercialize “green crude” made from algae, sunlight, and carbon dioxide — and to do it before the big boys, like Exxon-funded Synthetic Genomics.

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