Exxon: We Were Just Joking About Oil from Algae

February 10, 2023


After advertising its efforts to produce environmentally friendly fuels from algae for over a decade, Exxon Mobil Corp. is now quietly walking away from its most heavily publicized climate solution.

Exxon has slashed its support for Viridos Inc., a biotech company based in La Jolla, California, that operated as the oil giant’s key technical partner since it began its algae push in 2009. With Exxon funding drying up and difficulty finding other backers, the biotech firm laid off 60% of its staff on Dec. 27, according to Viridos executives. The biotech company said it is still moving forward with algae research.

Exxon, meanwhile, has also halted funding for a multi-million-dollar algae project at the Colorado School of Mines at the end of last year, after supporting the work for eight years. Another Exxon-backed venture with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is set to end within weeks.

Exxon confirmed that it’s pulling back on funding for algae in favor of other technologies now being worked on by its Low Carbon Solutions division. “At this point we have other programs that are ready for deployment,” said Vijay Swarup, Exxon’s senior director of technology who ran algae research. “We need to get on the deployment curve for carbon capture, for hydrogen, for biofuels. Algae still needs some more work.”

It’s a remarkable shift for Exxon. The allure of biofuels made from algae is that they would potentially generate less than half the emissions of petroleum. The production and use of Exxon’s oil and gas ultimately generates about 630 million tons of heat-trapping gases each year, nearly equal to the carbon footprint of Canada. The green goop has for years been prominently featured as a climate-friendly possibility in television ads and investor presentations.

Exxon is retreating from algae despite a smashing financial performance last year, in which it posted a record-breaking $59 billion in profits. And it comes just as the algae research has shown significant progress: Viridos and Exxon achieved significant improvements in recent years, including a seven-fold increase in the productivity of algae grown in outdoor ponds, according to Viridos Chief Executive Officer Oliver Fetzer. 

Algae has long played an intriguing role at Exxon. The company, more than any other, has received criticism for being the most recalcitrant on climate change, becoming the subject of lawsuits, protests and years of political scrutiny over its long-term commitment to fossil fuels even as global warming gathers pace. As criticism poured in, Exxon frequently held up its algae efforts as one significant piece of evidence that it was serious about climate change and discovering cleaner forms of energy. “They’ve been trying to create the impression that they’re part of the solution, when they’re certainly not,” said Robert Brulle, a visiting professor at Brown University who has studied the promotional activities of the fossil fuels industry.


4 Responses to “Exxon: We Were Just Joking About Oil from Algae”

  1. sailrick Says:

    Probably a better use of their expertise would be to develop geothermal in depleted gas or oil wells. This was covered here at Climate Crocks, in this article “Geothermal, Coming to Hot Rocks Near You, Sooner than You Think”.
    But of course they want to be able to continue selling some kind of fuel.

  2. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Ooh, this is new: Going after advertisers for pushing BS.

    They’re conspirators, in effect.

    And after all that help that Samantha Stephens gave Darren….

    • jimbills Says:

      I’m not a lawyer, but I’d guess intentionality would be a key part of a fraud case. A third-party marketing company wouldn’t likely know about internal discussions or plans within the company that hires them. They just advertise what they’re told to advertise. Marketing is an often soulless business, but intentional fraud would be very difficult to prove – which is probably why that sort of case against a marketing company itself hasn’t come up.

      Ketan Joshi’s and Jamie Henn’s tweets above are implying intentionality on Exxon’s part about algae. Exxon definitely got their money’s worth on marketing it to greenwash themselves. Wasn’t it every Super Bowl there was a ‘green’ Exxon ad? Maybe I’m mistaken. Curious to see if Exxon will still have the audacity to run any such ads in the future.

      • Anthony O'Brien Says:

        “Curious to see if Exxon will still have the audacity to run any such ads in the future” Of course they will. Put some peanut sized contribution into something and spend more than that on advertising.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: