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Facing climate change, ExxonMobil ramps up energy research

Illustration of an oil barrel with a battery compartment, a hundred dollar bill is rolled into one of the battery sockets.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

ExxonMobil is expanding its research efforts with the stated goal of producing more — but cleaner — energy in the face of climate change.

Driving the news: The world’s biggest publicly traded oil company has been creating new partnerships with American and foreign universities in recent years totaling at least $75 million, and it just inked another, unprecedented $100 million deal with the U.S. Energy Department.

The big picture: Oil and gas companies have been funding energy and climate research at universities and other entities for years. Exxon’s recent moves are an expansion of this trend at a time of heightened scrutiny facing oil companies and their role fueling climate change.

  • To critics, this corporate funding casts doubt on the scientific independence of research, especially from oil and gas producers with bottom lines to protect in the face of policies targeting their products.
  • To academics and executives involved, the partnerships are genuine and mutually beneficial as oil companies seek to adopt cleaner energy technologies and universities get deep pockets of money and expertise.

What they're saying: Princeton University professor Lynn Loo has defended the $5 million she got from Exxon beginning in 2015 as part of her leadership of the school’s Andlinger Center for Energy and Environment.

“When I first declared I was going to work with ExxonMobil, I faced a lot of backlash. I said, ‘Look, they’re an energy company. I want them at the table, and we have information that can help them make responsible decisions.’ ”
— Lynn Loo, Princeton University engineering professor

Where it stands: In 2014, Exxon began pursuing an internal goal to establish several partnerships with leading universities — roughly one per year — that go far beyond money. Exxon-employed scientists spend significant time at the universities. Many have offices, give guest lectures and co-author peer-reviewed research.

Since 2014, Exxon has helped establish 5 energy centers with 6 universities, including:

  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2014), Princeton University (2015), University of Texas at Austin (2016), Stanford University (2018), and 2 schools in Singapore: Nanyang Technological University and National University of Singapore (2019).
  • Today, Exxon announced a new collaboration with the Indian Institute of Technology in two cities in India.
  • Each agreement's funding ranges from $5 million to $25 million, for a total of at least $75 million.
  • Exxon’s agreement with the Energy Department’s national laboratory system, led by the Colorado-based National Renewable Energy Laboratory and announced in May, is unprecedented. At $100 million over 10 years, it’s the largest single non-federal investment in NREL’s 42-year-history.

“The vast majority of technology you see deployed in energy today started in academia. We need a line of sight,” said Vijay Swarup, Exxon’s chief scientist, in a recent interview at the company's research headquarters in Clinton, New Jersey. “Everything we do in research is designed to give us a competitive advantage.”

The complete reach of Exxon’s university funding and that of other oil and gas companies is hazy.

  • The liberal Center for American Progress did a study on the topic in 2010, but public tracking of the trend doesn’t appear to exist nor more recent data.
  • That report scrutinized, among other agreements, a $100 million investment Exxon put into a Stanford energy initiative earlier last decade.

Exxon’s research spans everything from solar panels to batteries, but its two biggest strategies to lower emissions are algae biofuels (to replace jet fuel, for example) and carbon dioxide capture technology, which could enable using oil and natural gas with far fewer emissions.

  • Most of Exxon’s collaborations appear to be touting cleaner-energy technologies as opposed to, say, extracting oil and gas more efficiently. But none of the actual contracts specify that the research should go toward any one type of technology.

“The vast majority of our agreements have an element in them that is addressing the dual challenge: How to scale energy and how to scale energy with lower emissions,” Swarup says.

The other side: Environmentalists and some academic experts view these collaborations with deep skepticism. They point to decades of oil companies resisting climate policy and claims by environmentalists that companies, especially Exxon, tried to muddle climate science for decades. Exxon denies such allegations.

Benjamin Franta, a J.D.-Ph.D. student researching this topic at Stanford University, said he wasn’t aware of certain aspects of the collaborations, including Exxon scientists co-authoring papers.

“It’s not a good idea for the fossil-fuel industry to be funding work that is supposed to ultimately put the fossil-fuel industry out of business. The case is made even stronger when you realize just how much disinformation and denial the industry has put out there for so many decades.”
— Benjamin Franta, Stanford University

What I’m watching: To what degree Exxon increases its funding and seeks to commercialize a particular low-carbon technology. Princeton's Loo says she pushes the company to spend more on research, pointing out that the amount is tiny compared to Exxon’s profits: $21 billion in 2018.

“We’re not just taking their money and are happy with what they’re telling us,” Loo said. “We’re good partners because we challenge each other.”