Different types of algae are growing in the Colorado State University Engines Lab. The lab is testing this algae to see which will produce the best oil derivative. Photo by Sherri Barber: AP
In spare moments during the last week I've been mulling over the implications of ExxonMobil's announcement of a very large investment in research and development on producing biofuels from algae, in collaboration with a leading biotech firm, Synthetic Genomics, Inc. While the reported figure of $600 million wouldn't buy much in the way of actual deployment, it could sure pay for a heck of a lot of R&D. The joint conference call about the announcement emphasized that the companies will be pursuing several possible technological pathways, though all appear to be focused on producing biofuel from algae continuously, rather than in a batch mode more analogous to farming. That would certainly increase the attractiveness for Exxon, which after all operates some of the world's biggest continuous production processes, in the form of its oil & gas fields, refineries, and chemical plants. The timing of this announcement is also interesting, coming just a few weeks after the US House of Representatives passed the first cap & trade bill to make it through either chamber of Congress.
The fundamental question I've been pondering is "why"? Why algae, and why ExxonMobil? For all of algae's enormous potential to produce large quantities of useful fuel, skepticism that this could ever be done economically on a useful scale abounds. And until now, Exxon had made a virtue of avoiding investments in renewable energy, generally seeing them as delivering returns well below those of the large oil & gas projects that have earned Exxon a sterling reputation for capital discipline. The answer to both questions likely resides in a word that appears frequently in the press release, in news coverage of the announcement, and in the press conference: scale. Two aspects of scale are relevant, here. First, in order to contribute meaningfully to our energy and climate problems, an alternative energy technology must be capable of being scaled up rapidly to a level comparable to today's oil, gas and coal industries. Current biofuels, solar power and wind still don't come close to matching the energy delivery of conventional sources. Exxon's website indicates potential liquid yields from algae of 2,000 gallons per acre, presumably in the form of the hydrocarbon-based "biocrude" emphasized repeatedly in the press conference. Even that relatively conservative estimate--my own back-of-the-envelope upper-bound estimate was 6,000 gal./acre--is at least ten times the current US yield of corn ethanol, after adjusting for energy content. Simplistically, if the acreage currently devoted to growing corn for ethanol were devoted to oil-excreting algae, it could replace nearly 60% of our gasoline supply from crude oil, rather than the 5% or so we get from ethanol.
Scale is also crucial for a firm of Exxon's size. A report in today's Wall St. Journal caught my eye. Occidental Petroleum announced its discovery of a 200 million barrel onshore oilfield in the middle of one of the most mature oil provinces in the world, in the San Joaquin Valley of California. I know that territory very well from my oil trading days, and it's an exciting development. However, Exxon is so big that it must find the equivalent of 8 such fields every year, just to stay even with its production. When I listen to the way Exxon describes its algae investment, I get the distinct sense that it views this arrangement as analogous to a very large oil exploration project, one that would be material to the results of the largest oil SuperMajor--and perhaps with similar odds of success. Now, it would be meaningless and of no value to Exxon if algae could produce the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of barrels per day of oil, but at a cost of $1,200/bbl. Exxon appears to be convinced that algae can contribute at a price very close to today's hydrocarbons, and probably without subsidies, knowing the firm's distaste for them. That has implications beyond algae.
In the conference call, Exxon's VP of R&D indicated that the company had assessed all of the advanced biofuels technologies and concluded that algae offered the best hope for producing fuels that would compete economically, with acceptable environmental impacts. That says something very worrying about the near-term prospects for cellulosic ethanol and the other "second-generation" biofuels technologies on which companies such as BP, Shell, and many others have pinned their hopes. Indeed, the US Congress pinned the whole country's hopes on the prompt commercialization of these unproven technologies in the remarkably ambitious national Renewable Fuels Standard they enacted in late 2007. If Exxon has concluded correctly that algae--which faces many serious hurdles of its own--is the best bet, then the entire US alternative fuels strategy could be in trouble.
There is also another way to look at this announcement. Exxon has been under enormous pressure to take a big stake in renewable energy. I vividly recall a Congressional hearing last year when committee chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) berated and belittled the Exxon representative for doing so little in this area. More recently, an environmental group took out full page ads targeting Exxon's opposition to cap & trade. I can't find the ad on the internet, but it said something like, "Poor Exxon, all alone in opposing Waxman-Markey." That has to get old, even for Exxon.Could the algae tie-up with Synthetic Genomics, with its impressive expenditures contingent on achieving a series of unspecified milestones, be intended mainly to get this particular monkey off their backs? I doubt it, even though all the other advanced biofuel technologies being touted by their promoters also involve a substantial element of PR, until they actually produce commercial outcomes. If Exxon merely wanted to create some "green cred", it could have taken the same money and bought a dozen bankrupt corn ethanol plants or a few medium-sized wind farms. If the Exxon/Synthetic Genomics collaboration is about making Exxon greener, then it is certainly doing it the Exxon way, investing in something that, if successful, would neatly and profitably slot into their existing business model--and by the way into the hundreds of existing refineries and hundreds of millions of internal combustion engine vehicles globally. It's probably too early to imagine Big Oil becoming Big Algae, but the possibilities have obvious appeal, apparently even for the world's most successful oil company.