In 2009, Exxon began a research program designed to extract fuels that could be used to power internal combustion engines from algae. In the intervening years between then and now, it has spent almost as much money bragging about the research as it has on the research itself. Now, according to Bloomberg (paywall), it has quietly shut down the program. There will be no more touchy-feely ads from Exxon touting how it is helping to solve the problem of an overheating planet — overheating caused in large part by the company itself via its insatiable quest for profits.
Did you read about this in the mainstream press? No, neither did I. But Bill McKibben found out about it and shared the news with his readers this week. After making a record $59 billion in profits in 2022, the company has decided it has milked the green fuel from algae lie long enough and shut the program down.
The program was always a scam — a “scum scam” as McKibben wryly calls it. He notes that researchers early on noted that the price of oil would need to hit $500 a barrel before algae fuels would be cost competitive. A trial at Swansea University in Wales showed that to supply 10% of Europe’s transport fuel needs with algae would require growing ponds three times the size of Belgium.
According to Climate Commentary, meeting the needs of the UK for transportation fuels would require covering 18% of all its agricultural land with algae ponds. Already by 2020, Exxon was admitting that at best it would produce about 10,000 barrels of algae fuel a day — 0.2% of its daily output of oil.
That commentary from 2018 was inspired by ads Exxon placed in the Financial Times touting its “green” intentions. “I think the Exxon advertisements present a highly partial and inaccurate view of the company’s actions and intentions,” the author wrote. “I question whether responsible media owners should accept advertising which is as misleading and incomplete as this….The Financial Times should have demanded more evidence to support its advertiser’s assertions.”
The Green Algae Fuels Myth
Maybe the algae fuels program was spawned because the big thinkers at Exxon thought green algae would be a clever way to make people think Exxon was really interested in going green itself. In any event, it appears the whole program was designed so the company could bamboozle the public. It allowed it to buy space in the New York Times to tell the world what wonderful things the company was doing to protect the Earth from the harm done by extracting and burning fossil fuels. Perhaps, like the Financial Times, the New York Times should have demanded some evidence the program actually worked before printing the ads extolling the virtuous nature of Exxon’s research?
McKibben writes that someone unfamiliar with the company who read about the wonders of algae fuels in the press might get the impression that Exxon was an algae company which happened to have a few oil wells on the side. The company spent at least $50 million for TV time so it could brag about its algae program.
In an article for the New Yorker in 2020, McKibben described how Exxon hired a bunch of “creatives” to develop 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.”
Here’s the meat in Bill McKibben’s latest post:
“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 (emphasis added) on exploration, discovery and production of new fields.”
The paradox is that although we now know beyond any reasonable doubt that burning fossil fuels is degrading the Earth to the point where humans may no longer be able to inhabit this beautiful blue orb, we have built modern society on the wonderful things that happen when fossil fuels are burned to create electricity or power our vehicles. The prospect of what life would be like without fossil fuels to power our every whim and wish is just too horrible to even think about. So we don’t.
Bill McKibben ends his latest blog post this way. “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!”
UPDATE: We reached out to Bill McKibben with some follow-up questions, and he graciously put us in touch with Duncan Meisel, Executive Director of Clean Creatives. Duncan’s answers are as follows:
Q: Is carbon capture just another way for fossil fuel companies to distract the public?
Any serious climate plan needs to include immediate cuts to carbon pollution. Oil companies are using the possibility of future carbon capture as an excuse to avoid doing what every single climate scientist insists needs to happen right now: stop investing in pollution.
Q: How much do fossil fuel companies spend on advertising so-called “green” initiatives each year?
Oil companies don’t share their advertising budgets in any way. I think they are scared to show how much they have to spend on influencing the public, and we will probably never know the full extent of their investments in misinformation.
3. Do Exxon executives actually believe the lies their creative departments come up with?
Exxon and their creative agency BBDO knew from the beginning that their algae fuel ads were misleading. Emails released by a House subcommittee last year showed BBDO employees discussing with Exxon communications team members about how algae fuels would never be sold to the public – but they ran tens of millions of dollars worth of ads about it anyways. You can see some of the emails here and here.
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