Wait, Exxon’s Not Going to be an Algae Company?

February 16, 2023

That green scum above? That’s what Exxon told us was going to power the future—this image linked here is from the initial stories back in 2009 when they insisted that algae would “be a meaningful part of the solution.” It was, the Times solemnly intoned, a “major strategic shift” for the company.

Exxon quietly gave up that idea this week, ending their involvement in the algae business.

In the more-than-decade in between, they invested some millions in algae research—and invested huge sums of money in boasting about it. For much of this period, a viewer encountering the company for the first time would have concluded that Exxon was an algae company who happened to have a few oil wells on the side. The company spent at least $50 million on tv time bragging about algae, and as I wrote in 2020 in the New Yorker, it hired a bunch of high-powered ‘creatives’ to, among other things, develop truly lovely web videos showing teeny tiny algae-powered devices. In one installment, algae-fuel is used to propel a tiny boat around a bowl. This algae, a sprightly narrator notes, could power “entire fleets of ships tomorrow.” In fact, the ad contends, algae could fuel “the trucks, ships and planes of tomorrow.” It concludes, “This is big.”

But it was not big. “Algae” was never going to be a solution to the emissions crisis—as people have been noting for many years, you’d need oil trading at $500 a barrel to make it cost effective. A trial at Swansea University, in Wales, showed that, if you wanted to supply, say, ten per cent of Europe’s transport-fuel needs with algae, you’d need growing ponds three times the size of Belgium. According to one blog, you’d need ponds covering eighteen per cent of the agricultural land in the United Kingdom just to cover Britain’s transportation habits. Already by 2020, the company was admitting that best it would produce about 10,000 barrels a day, or one fifth of one percent of their oil output.

But remember: for Exxon, reducing emissions isn’t the problem. The problem is fighting off actual solutions to the climate crisis. Which in this case mean solar power and windpower. These are now the cheapest way to produce energy on our planet. They can deliver massive quantities of energy and very quickly. So why wasn’t Exxon investing in them, and instead pretending it was interested in algae?

Because—and this is a key point to understand—sun and wind don’t fit Exxon’s business model. Exxon makes money—a record $59 billion this past year—by selling you stuff that you burn so then you have to buy some more. Oil and gas fit that mold, sun and wind don’t. The sun delivers energy for free—once your panels are set up, it gives you a new shipment every time it rises above the horizon. That’s why, from Exxon’s point of view, it’s such a dumb business. Which is why, as an Exxon spokesman explained this week, they want to “get on the deployment curve for carbon capture, for hydrogen, for biofuels.” Hydrogen and biofuels (and algae, I guess) are like oil and gas—you have to keep paying for more (and “carbon capture” is a great way to harvest federal subsidies.) But even hydrogen and biofuels are not really what Exxon wants to do—what it wants to do is oil and gas, which is why it spends hundreds of millions of dollars a week on exploration, discovery and production of new fields.

All this should teach us some lessons about credulity. Exxon and its ilk have been misleading us about global warming from the jump. In this case, they used their money to get many others involved in their propaganda effort. Here’s a standard version of the advertising, but if you want to see something really disturbing, here’s a longish video employing a six-year-old girl to help sell the idea. Oh, and there was a long “paid post” prepared with the Times’ brand marketing team which aims to explain “how scientists are tapping algae and plant waste to fuel a sustainable energy future.” As a researcher explains, “Eventually, we want to power something the size of UPS or FedEx’s global fleet with renewable diesel. That would be pretty aspirational. It’d be a real ‘We did it’ moment.”

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But of course that’s not how it’s going to happen. UPS and FedEx are, happily, electrifying their delivery fleets, so they can run on sun and wind, just as people are deploying heat pumps and induction cooktops and EVs—in every case over the strenuous lobbying efforts of Big Flame.

Everyone who was paying attention knew the score with the algae stuff. As one ad-industry newsletter put it, if the campaign “burnishes the brand as it stares down rough headlines, or just softens the company’s image in general—well, that’s not small potatoes.” But of course this kind of advertising counts on people not really paying attention, just kind of absorbing vibes.

Constant vigilance is the price of a working planet!

+In a victory for Europena campaigners—and a momentum boost heading up to the big American demonstrations on 3/21/23—British banking giant NatWest commited to ending new loans for oil and gas extraction

The banks’s chief executive, Alison Rose, said similar steps would be taken to phase out the same funding for existing customers, meaning the bank would refuse to renew, refinance or extend loans for upstream gas projects from the start of 2026.

“We want to ensure our capital is being used to support a transition while continuing to reduce the financing of harmful emissions,” Rose said

+Individuals aren’t the cause of climate change (see Exxon above) but Shannon Osaka in the WaPo has some numbers about ways they can help solve it

According to data from Princeton University, roughly 30 percent of the emissions reductions from the bill expected over the next decade will come from consumers switching to electric vehicles and a transformation in home heating and appliances.

Part of that is due to the gas-fueled nature of the American home. “Many houses are like mini fossil-fuel power plants,” said Leah Stokes, a professor of political science at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “They have a gas furnace, a gas water heater and a gas stove. And then out front, the power plant has a gas-powered car!”

This would be good news, because as Jag Bhalla points out in Current Affaris, those emissions from affluent Americans are an awfully big part of the problem

The fastest (and therefore most prudent) path to protecting “the basis of life on Earth” doesn’t run mainly through the Amazon (however important it is to save the rainforest). It involves ensuring that materially-cosseted elites stop hogging more of the planet’s resources than is compatible with a thriving human population and biosphere. The science is clear: consumption cuts are required.

+Not for the first time a great essay from Filipino climate stalwart Yeb Sano:

Given how profoundly the fossil-fuelled climate crisis wrecks lives, I cannot comprehend how companies like Shell can continue with business as usual. Their deception is one of the biggest injustices in human history and it is galling that they refuse to acknowledge their complicity.

They knew about this problem long before many of us, and yet they continue to rob us of our future.

Over the last 50 years or so, Shell has created 10 times the carbon pollution of the Philippines.

+Flood waters have not yet receded in much of Pakistan, and the suffering is immense, as this Guardian article makes clear

When Noorang Chandio was flooded in August, Ali joined other families taking refuge on the 50km-long Superio embankment in Dadu. For weeks, about 2,000 people perched there in makeshift shelters on the raised strip of land, which was then only accessible by boat.

Nearby roads have now re-emerged but murky green, pungent water remains, covering acres of the cotton fields. Most surviviors, including Ali’s family, now live in tents in a camp set up by the Sindh authorities.

But life is not easy. “It rained yesterday, and the water was flowing into our camps. We were shivering from the cold all night. When we see rain, we pray to God it should stop. We are tired of this life,” says Badal Chandio, whose tent is next to Ali’s.

Both men now sell buffalo dung to make ends meet.

Teaser photo credit: VillageHero from Ulm, Germany. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.,_Paradise_Bay_(25783836955).jpg

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books about the environment, including The End of Nature (1989), the first book for a general audience on climate change, and Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (2010). He is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign, which has coordinated 15,000 rallies in 189 countries since 2009. He is a frequent contributor to various publications including The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone, and Outside. He is also a board member and contributor to Grist Magazine. A scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, Bill holds honorary degrees from a dozen colleges. In 2011 he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Tags: algae, biodiesel, fossil fuel companies, greenwashing