Industry-Sponsored Research Week

ExxonMobil research deal sparks backlash at Princeton


By David Schwartz
Published: July 14th, 2020

Last week, ExxonMobil and Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment renewed a five-year research partnership as part of the center’s affiliates program. In the five years ending in June 2020, Princeton received more than $6 million in funding from the energy giant, which funded 29 faculty research projects, many of which centered on environmental issues and sustainability.

Under the new deal, the center hopes to work with ExxonMobil on modeling energy systems and determining barriers to decarbonization, with a goal of moving towards a net-zero society. 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.” 

But the extension of the partnership was signed in spite of opposition from Divest Princeton, a group of students, faculty, and alumni calling for the Princeton to divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies. 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.

According to a statement from the protest group, “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.”

The company invests about $1 billion annually in research and new technologies, but with $360 billion in assets it has been criticized for a comparatively low carbon initiative investment rate, at  0.22 percent. And in March, the company also refused to set a carbon-neutral target, dismissing the idea as a “beauty competition” between energy companies. In addition, ExxonMobil has been slammed for donating over $30 million to groups that promote climate denial. 

Loo defended her decision to renew the deal in an opinion piece in The Daily Princetonian, arguing for 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.”

Loo also pushed back against conflict-of-interest concerns, noting that all research is independent of company agendas. Moreover, she said, ExxonMobil’s position as an industry partner is indispensable to researchers’ 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 noted.

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 critical to decarbonization efforts, and ExxonMobil has sequestered more carbon in 20 years than any other company. 

Source: The Daily Princetonian

Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week

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