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Exxon drops its algae ruse
Fat on record profits, Exxon is abandoning a notorious effort to convince the public it was working on climate solutions.
Emily Sanders is editorial lead for the Center for Climate Integrity. You can catch up with her on Twitter here.
After spending millions of dollars advertising its investments in algae biofuels research as a path towards solving climate change, Exxon is giving up the facade.
The company is cutting funding ties with several algae research projects, according to new reporting from Bloomberg. The move concludes Exxon’s years-long attempt to gaslight the public and lawmakers into believing it was serious about tackling climate change — and that a combination of advanced technology and green goop would help usher in the company’s vision of a clean energy transition.
The illusion that Exxon toiled to create was always tenuous at best. In 2009, attuned to the growing greenwashing efforts of its peers, the company pledged to spend $600 million in algae biofuels research and development, flooding the airwaves with advertisements about its investments in what could possibly turn out to be a “low emissions transportation fuel.”
But years later, the viability of Exxon’s algae ventures wasn’t looking good. In an internal email from 2016, one of many documents unearthed by the House Oversight Committee’s recent investigation into Big Oil’s climate disinformation, PR firm BBDO notes that it will “replace any lines that the technology is live today” and “add more science to underscore [the] point that this is in the research phase” in draft algae advertisements prepared for Exxon.
In 2017, having spent half of their allotted research budget, the company claimed to have had a major breakthrough. A year later, Exxon announced a new goal: they would have “the technical ability to produce 10,000 barrels of algae biofuel per day” by 2025 (only .2% of their total refinery production, but they flaunted it anyway).
What followed was a wildly expensive marketing blitz promoting a product that did not yet exist, and, according to the company’s own estimates, wouldn’t for a long time. The ads featured scientists as “energy farmers” mining the ocean 24/7 to harvest “renewable biofuels,” touted algae’s “potential to change our energy future,” and even used schoolkids to spread the word. Exxon spent $68 million to air three such advertisements on television between 2017 and 2020, just under a quarter of the amount it spent on algae research since 2009, according to findings from the House Oversight’s investigation last year.
In an ad campaign called Unexpected Energy, the oil giant partnered with The New York Times T-Brand studio to sell its snake oil under the cover of the trusted “Timesian” voice, finding that by creating “compelling and engaging content that mirrored the award-winning journalism of the world-renowned publication ensured authenticity, credibility and relevance, and was ultimately more impactful to the audience.”
Exxon was well aware that algae was a pipe dream at best. In an internal presentation from 2018, the company noted that the technology was “still decades away from the scale we need.” Still, it found new ways to promote algae as a miracle of scientific and technological advancement, including blasting its message over social media.
Exxon wasn’t using advertising only to deflect from its decades of climate deception and ongoing refusal to transition away from fossil fuels. When faced with growing calls to hold the company accountable, Exxon has pointed time and again to its algae research as proof that it was already working on it.
In an FAQ included in its 2021 “Energy & Carbon Summary,” the company includes a question on why Exxon isn’t investing in existing renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Citing its “progress in the development of advanced algae and cellulosic liquid biofuels,” it responded: “The Company is focused on areas where it can make a unique and significant contribution, and where it has deep scientific competencies. In this way, ExxonMobil can make the most meaningful and expedient contribution to society’s efforts to manage the risks of climate change.”
Today, Exxon’s long-awaited retreat from algae research confirms what many of us already knew: that it was nothing more than a well-funded, long-form greenwashing attempt to get us off their backs. Christine Arena, a founding member of Clean Creatives, a project advocating for PR professionals to drop fossil fuel clients, and a former executive vice president at PR giant Edelman, said, “Exxon's walk-back from algae further illustrates how consumers and investors have been duped. The company spent hundreds of millions of dollars over-indexing its reputation off of minimal investments in green technologies that were never viable or scalable to begin with.”
Exxon wasn’t the only oil company with a proven history of climate deception to backtrack on a so-called “climate solution” or pledge in recent weeks. After raking in record-breaking profits last year, Shell and BP are retreating from their climate pledges, too.
Even before this year, the companies had a proven track record of pulling back on their publicly marketed climate commitments. In 2009, after widely advertising its investments in renewable energy, Shell retreated from funding wind, solar, and hydrogen. After a highly publicized campaign rebrand of the company as “Beyond Petroleum,” BP pivoted away from solar and wind. After Chevron similarly backed away from renewables in 2014, one former employee who helped run the company’s clean energy projects told Grist that such projects “requir[e] significant commitment at the most senior levels of management. I didn’t perceive that kind of commitment from Chevron during my time with the firm.” Each of these companies is now the subject of complaints for greenwashing and misleading investors and consumers about its (lack of) intention to transition away from fossil fuels.
Jamie Henn, Director of Fossil Free Media, said in a statement that Exxon positioning itself as a partner in climate solutions “was always a lie.”
“This backtracking also validates what fossil fuel divestment activists have been saying for over a decade: these companies don’t have the commitment, or capability, to change,” Henn said. “Wrecking the planet is their business model and they have no intention of giving it up … It’s time to wake-up to that reality and replace our carrots with hard-hitting sticks, like divestment, regulations, and lawsuits.”
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