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Under investor pressure, Exxon gets into carbon removal technology

ExxonMobil is looking to scale up zany-sounding technology that takes carbon dioxide emissions out of the sky by partnering with one of the few companies in the world pursuing that tech.

Driving the news: Exxon, the world’s biggest publicly traded oil company, announced Thursday it signed a joint development agreement to advance technology capturing CO2 with Global Thermostat, a startup co-founded in 2010 by a former Exxon scientist, Peter Eisenberger.

The big picture: Publicly traded oil companies, including Chevron and Occidental Petroleum, are pursuing this type of technology because they’re facing pressure from shareholders to pursue strategies more in line with a world that is drastically reducing CO2 emissions. This technology, costly and unproven on a massive scale, is a way to do that without getting off oil and gas that producers have made big profits on for decades.

One level deeper: Global Thermostat has focused so far on technology removing CO2 from the sky long after it was emitted, which many experts say is increasingly essential to adequately address climate change. Vijay Swarup, Exxon’s vice president of research and development, says the tech may also be used to capture CO2 from the smokestacks of a power plant or industrial facility.

Where it stands: Exxon is not buying a stake in Global Thermostat, like the venture arms of Occidental and Chevron have with Carbon Engineering, another company pursuing similar technology. Instead, Exxon will work alongside Global Thermostat on research, with an eye toward possibly building a plant.

  • Exxon didn’t disclose how much money it’s putting toward this effort.
  • “We think we can make a bigger impact through joint development and understanding the pathway to scale,” Swarup said in an interview on Wednesday.

What they’re saying: “We don’t know how much money is going into this, but I do not read this announcement as greenwashing,” said Julio Friedmann, senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. “This is not an attempt to look like you’re doing something instead of doing something. This is an attempt to understand whether this technology class is a viable option for the future.”

  • Friedmann, a former Obama-era Energy Department official, worked at Exxon in the late 1990s, but is not advising any companies involved, he said.

The other side: Some environmental activists dismiss this technology, arguing it’s just another way for producers to keep drilling for oil and gas as opposed to moving toward cleaner forms like wind and solar.

  • Swarup said all energy resources are needed but also didn’t dispute the notion this tech would allow Exxon to continue its current business.
  • “What we want to do is continue to be a large scale energy provider, and carbon capture will enable that,” Swarup said. “And if you’re able to provide scalable energy without changing the carbon footprint I cannot imagine that is a bad thing.”

Go deeper: The Washington Post’s Steve Mufson recently visited a Global Thermostat facility in Alabama