Last week, ExxonMobil and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment renewed a five-year research partnership. The collaboration exists as part of the Center’s E-filliates Partnership, a corporate membership program dedicated to the acceleration of energy and environmental research.
From 2015 to 2020, the University took over $6 million in research funds from Exxon Mobil. The corporation funded 29 faculty research projects, ranging from the properties that dictate the melting of sea-ice to developing the groundwork for low-cost solar technologies. The first five-year contract officially ended on June 3, 2020.
In the next stage of the partnership, the Center aims to leverage their work in modeling energy systems and determining barriers to decarbonization, in order to move towards a net-zero society.
In the announcement, Lynn Loo, Andlinger Center director and professor of engineering, called the renewed partnership a “win-win” that helps the Center “reduce emissions globally while improving access to energy around the world.”
“We challenge ExxonMobil scientists to explore the fundamental scientific questions that underpin technology development in new ways, and they challenge our scientists to think about the practical considerations of scaling technologies,” she continued.
Vijay Swarup, vice president of research and development for ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company, was cited in the announcement, saying, “We look forward to our renewed partnership and will continue to work side by side with Princeton faculty and students to develop innovative solutions to help us meet society’s dual challenge of providing energy to those who need it and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
The announcement comes on the tails of advocacy against the deal’s renewal by Divest Princeton, a group of students, faculty, and alumni calling for the University to divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies. Campaigning on their Instagram platform, the group created the hashtag #breakupwithexxon and asked their followers to email President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83 in support of divestment.
With the slogan “No Donations until Divestment,” the group has urged current and future alumni to withhold donations until the University divests from fossil fuels. As of June 29, 1,030 students, alumni, faculty, staff and parents have pledged to do so in an open letter penned to Eisgruber.
Responding to the contract’s renewal through Instagram, Divest Princeton wrote, “The director of the center, Dr. Lynn Loo, claims it will help ‘reduce emission globally’ — too bad Exxon is one of the fossil fuels companies that won’t even set a goal for becoming carbon neutral.”
ExxonMobil is one of the largest oil and gas companies worldwide, with assets worth over $360 billion. According to its website, the company invests $1 billion per year in energy research and emerging technologies. Many climate activists have denounced the company for its comparatively low carbon initiative investment rate — 0.22 percent.
In March, the company also refused to set a carbon-neutral target, dismissing the idea as a “beauty competition” between energy companies. ExxonMobil has also been criticized for its role in climate misinformation campaigns, having donated over $30 million to think tanks that promote climate denial.
In an opinion piece in The Daily Princetonian, Loo defended her decision to renew the deal, promoting engagement with industry partners and an “all hands on deck” mindset.
“Our experience has demonstrated that our individual skillsets are almost never enough to create substantial change; we must engage and build partnerships with a range of critical players beyond our campus and outside the academy,” she wrote. “Our partnership with the ExxonMobil company is a case in point.”
Despite activists’ criticism that ExxonMobil funding University research creates a conflict of interest, Loo maintains that research remains independent of company agendas. Loo wrote that “across all projects, Princeton researchers are in the driver’s seat.”
Still, she emphasized, ExxonMobil’s position as an industry partner is indispensable to the work.
“The most promising technologies and processes that emerge from these studies can only be scaled up rapidly and brought online with the expertise, experience, and infrastructure of companies like ExxonMobil,” she added.
In the Andlinger Center’s announcement, Loo cites the Net-Zero America Project as one of the partnership’s chief successes. “Through the Net-Zero America Project, for example, we are contextualizing what the energy transition to net-zero emissions by 2050 in the United States can look like, and outlining the possible pathways of getting there.” The project’s work has shown that carbon capture and storage technologies will be important in the work of decarbonization. ExxonMobil is currently the world leader in carbon capture, having sequestered more carbon in 20 years than any other company.
In light of the deal’s renewal, Divest Princeton is hosting an event entitled “Oil Money Runs Deep: A Discussion on Fossil Fuel Funded Research At Universities.”