In a recent opinion piece, Andlinger Center Director Lynn Loo defended the Center’s research partnership with ExxonMobil on the grounds that engagement with oil and gas companies is required for rapid decarbonization. This piece came within 24 hours of an announcement that Exxon had re-upped the multimillion dollar partnership for another 5 years.
I don’t doubt that professor Loo is deeply committed to fighting climate change. I agree wholeheartedly that we need all hands on deck. But if we examine Exxon’s motivations, I think we’ll discover that some of those hands are trying to sink the ship, and that’s if sea level rise doesn’t take us down first. By renewing the partnership, Loo and her colleagues have inadvertently abetted Exxon’s efforts to delay climate action and protect its long-term investments in fossil fuel infrastructure. The Andlinger Center is being used.
The partnership is the latest in the company’s sordid history of greenwashing while simultaneously pursuing the 3 D’s: deny (science), delay (action), and deflect (blame). For example, Exxon’s advanced biofuel research has been well-documented as little more than a PR campaign and is currently the basis for a lawsuit brought against the company by the state of Massachusetts.
Loo states that the next phase of research will focus on carbon capture and storage. While alluring on paper, this technology has long been leveraged as a license to continue emitting. How convenient for Exxon! They get to appear committed to climate action while undermining consensus on the solutions — like renewables, electrification, and efficiency — necessary to achieve zero emissions. If Professor Loo is serious that we “need to start slashing carbon emissions right now,” then Exxon is the wrong partner. The company declined to evem set a 2050 emission reductions goal.
Loo continues, “Across all projects, Princeton researchers are in the driver’s seat: we choose what to work on and when to publish our work.” While that may be true, they do not choose how that research is cited in testimony or publicized. I can already hear the commercial: “Alongside world-renowned researchers at Princeton, Exxon is developing technology to store carbon dioxide directly in geologic formations.”
A feel-good story like that makes it easy to forget that the company spent $41 million lobbying against climate action in 2019 in the US alone. I would never expect a for-profit company to support an existential threat to its business model, as climate action poses for Exxon and its peers. They have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, in part through funding research that creates the illusion of progress.
But I expect more from Princeton’s leaders. I know their intentions are pure, but they have failed to recognize a bad faith actor taking advantage of Princeton’s name; knowingly or not, by granting Exxon legitimacy, the University has become complicit in climate inaction.
Graham Turk graduated in 2017 and concentrated in the Computer Science department with a certificate in Sustainable Energy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.