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Expand chart
Data: BloombergNEF; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

How much research and development big oil companies are putting into cleantech is one of the few concrete metrics to gauge the industry’s varying shifts toward cleaner energy.

Between the lines: Pinning that figure down is tricky because many companies don’t disclose and even those that do use definitions that vary widely for what constitutes cleaner energy or low-carbon.

The big picture: Just 2 out of 8 of the world’s biggest publicly traded oil companies (ExxonMobil and Total) are spending more on overall research and development today than nearly a decade ago, according to BloombergNEF analysis of companies’ recent financial reports, as the accompanying chart shows.

  • The R&D spending of all 8 companies analyzed (the 5 companies shown plus Equinor, Repsol and Eni) dropped in 2015, likely due to the drop in global oil prices that squeezed the entire industry.
  • Exxon consistently spends the most on R&D, surpassing an annual $1 billion spend most years.

One level deeper: The Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, an industry-led coalition of 13 of the world’s biggest oil companies, says in a new report that R&D spending on lower carbon energy rose by 38% in 2018, reaching $1 billion, though that figure represents only 9 companies that disclosed (OGCI doesn’t disclose which companies disclosed).

  • As for what constitutes low carbon, OGCI writes that “low carbon energy technologies include but are not limited to: energy efficiency, wind, solar and other renewables [carbon capture], hydrogen, biofuels, energy storage and sustainable mobility.”
  • The caveat “but are not limited to” leaves room for companies to consider an array of other tech and sources as lower carbon. It does appear that natural gas, the cleanest fossil fuel that is nonetheless facing increasing opposition from environmentalists and Democratic politicians, is excluded from this definition.

The intrigue: I just spoke with Bill Farris, an associate laboratory director at the U.S. Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory for my recent column on Exxon’s expanding external research funding, including with NREL. He said NREL works with other oil companies too, albeit with distinct focuses, illustrating the different strategies big oil companies are pursuing when it comes to clean tech.

“Whether it’s biofuels for Exxon or smart grids for Shell or offshore wind for Equinor, we try to make the R&D capabilities available.”
— Bill Farris, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

What I’m watching: David Doherty, an oil analyst at BloombergNEF, says he expects R&D toward low-carbon to increase alongside what he has seen to be an increase in external investments so far this year.

Go deeper

Off the Rails

Episode 4: Trump turns on Barr

Photo illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photos: Drew Angerer, Pool/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. Axios takes you inside the collapse of a president with a special series.

Episode 4: Trump torches what is arguably the most consequential relationship in his Cabinet.

Attorney General Bill Barr stood behind a chair in the private dining room next to the Oval Office, looming over Donald Trump. The president sat at the head of the table. It was Dec. 1, nearly a month after the election, and Barr had some sharp advice to get off his chest. The president's theories about a stolen election, Barr told Trump, were "bullshit."

In photos: Protests outside fortified capitols draw only small groups

Armed members of the far-right extremist group the Boogaloo Bois near the Michigan Capitol Building in Lansing on Jan. 17. About 20 protesters showed up, AP notes. Photo: Seth Herald/AFP via Getty Images

Small groups of protesters gathered outside fortified statehouses across the U.S. over the weekend ahead of President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration Wednesday.

The big picture: Some protests attracted armed members of far-right extremist groups but there were no reports of clashes, as had been feared. The National Guard and law enforcement outnumbered demonstrators, as security was heightened around the U.S. to avoid a repeat of the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riots, per AP.

Felix Salmon, author of Capital
9 hours ago - World

China's economy grows 6.5% in Q4 as country rebounds from coronavirus

A technician installs and checks service robots to be be used for food and medicine delivery in Jiaxing, Zhejiang Province, China, on Sunday. Photo: Hu Xuejun/VCG via Getty Images

China's economy grew at a 6.5% pace in the final quarter of 2020, the national statistics bureau announced Monday local time, topping off a year in which it grew in three of four quarters and by 2.3% in total.

Why it matters: No other major economy managed positive growth in 2020. Although the COVID-19 pandemic was first detected in China, the country got the virus under control and became one of the main positive drivers of the global economy even as the rest of the world was largely under lockdown.