ExxonMobil’s expanded research to produce ‘cleaner’ energy

A debate is underway involving ExxonMobil’s expanded research with the intention of producing cleaner energy while environmentalists clamor about climate change.

Here’s how Amy Harder of Axios news reported the story on Monday:

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
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