SubscribeArrow

Good morning. My latest Harder Line column reveals a yearslong effort by ExxonMobil to ramp up its energy research, with the stated goal to help tackle climate change. I'll share a glimpse of that, and then Ben Geman will get you up to speed on other news.

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,195 words, ~ 4.5 minutes.

1 big thing: Exxon ramps up clean-tech research

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.

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 4 in the U.S., 2 in Singapore and just today a new collaboration with an Indian university.

“Everything we do in research is designed to give us a competitive advantage,” said Vijay Swarup, Exxon’s chief scientist, in a recent interview at the company's research headquarters in Clinton, New Jersey.

Exxon’s research spans everything from solar panels to batteries, but its two biggest strategies to lower emissions are algae biofuels 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.

2. The case against industry-funded research

Environmentalists and some academic experts view collaborations like these with ExxonMobil with deep skepticism.

Flashback: 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.” — Franta
3. The lure of India's LNG market

Total SA is acquiring a 37% stake in the Indian gas distribution firm Adani Gas as the French energy giant looks to capitalize on rising LNG demand in the world's second-most populous nation.

Why it matters: The roughly $600 million deal announced Monday will give Total "a footprint in a market where annual LNG demand will hit 28 million tons by 2023, making it the fourth biggest importer of the fuel," Bloomberg reports.

Total is already the world's second-largest LNG player.

The big picture: "Total is the third foreign oil major to enter India’s gas sector after BP PLC and Shell, and it comes at a time when India is spending heavily to cut its carbon emissions," Reuters notes.

What they're saying: "Total’s investment in Adani is undoubtedly a show of faith in India’s gas demand growth," the research firm Wood Mackenzie said in a note.

  • They point out that India wants gas to meet 15% of its energy demand by 2030, up from 6% today.
  • And while they don't see India hitting that target, their note still sees major demand growth in that timeframe and projects that LNG will meet half of it.
4. A UK energy milestone
Screenshot of chart showing U.K. power generation in Q3 2019 via Carbon Brief

Renewables outpaced fossil fuels in U.K. power generation during the third quarter of 2019 for the first time since the late 1800s, according to a new analysis from the site Carbon Brief.

Why it matters: "It is another symbolic milestone in the stunning transformation of the UK’s electricity system over the past decade," writes Simon Evans, deputy editor of the climate news and analysis site.

The important numbers: In the July-September stretch, 39% of U.K. power generation came from fossil fuels — nearly all gas with a bit of coal and oil.

  • Renewables edged ahead at 40%, including 20% from wind, 12% from biomass and 6% from solar. Nuclear provided 19%, they note.

But, but, but: "[A] lack of progress in other parts of the economy means the UK remains far off track against its upcoming legally-binding carbon targets, let alone the recently adopted goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050," Evans writes.

And he notes that biomass, while renewable, still produces CO2 when burned.

5. The rebranding of hybrid cars

Lincoln Aviator Grand Touring is a plug-in hybrid. Photo: Lincoln

Carmakers are going to great lengths to reposition their gas-electric hybrid models as sporty, premium or even high-performance — anything but the responsible choice for tree-huggers, Axios' Joann Muller reports.

Why it matters: With stricter fuel economy standards looming, and zero-emission electric cars still too pricey for most consumers, automakers need to fill the compliance gap by selling a lot more hybrids.

Driving the news: To drum up excitement, carmakers are gussying up their hybrids, or adding them to their most popular SUV models, while hiding the fuel-efficient hybrid powertrain behind other, more appealing selling points like sporty performance, all-wheel drive or leather upholstery.

Where it stands: Here's what some automakers are doing...

  • Ford's 2020 Escape SE Sport, at $29,450, comes with a popular blacked-out appearance package. Less obvious is the hybrid powertrain, which is standard. Ford's top-of-the-line Escape Titanium is also now a hybrid, though buyers are likely to notice its premium technology features first.
  • Honda is adding a hybrid powertrain to its best-selling U.S. model, the all-wheel-drive CR-V crossover, and selling it as the top-of-the-line choice with features like an exclusive push-button gear selector.
  • Mercedes-Benz's new AMG high-performance models feature "EQ-Boost" — an auxiliary 48-volt power system that turns the powertrain into a mild hybrid. The emphasis is on acceleration.
  • The Lincoln Aviator Grand Touring edition doesn't even promote the fact that it's a plug-in hybrid. It's all about "effortless acceleration," and making the car feel like it's gliding, brand manager Brad Jaeger tells Axios.

Go deeper

Bonus: The past and future of hybrid sales
Expand chart
Data: LMC Automotive; Chart: Axios Visuals

Toyota gave birth to the hybrid movement with the U.S. introduction of the Prius in 2000.

What's next: Hybrid sales have been fairly slow, but are expected to take off in the next 5 years as automakers strive to meet higher fuel efficiency standards, according to LMC Automotive.

6. On my screen: Crude oil, PG&E, AI

OPEC: Via Reuters, "Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said on Monday there were no talks underway to change the global output deal under which OPEC and non-OPEC oil-producing countries have curbed output in order to support prices."

Utilities: The New York Times has a well-reported look at the missteps and confusion around PG&E's decision last week to shut off power in wide swaths of California in order to lessen wildfire risks.

Tech: Per The Wall Street Journal, "Amid a growing push to cut operating costs, big oil is looking to artificial intelligence for help with automating functions, predicting equipment problems and increasing the output of oil and gas."