Do not mistake ExxonMobil’s announcement of a $600m partnership with Craig Venter, the pioneer of human genome research, to study making biofuels from algae as any indication that it has succumbed to pressure that it follow the pack into alternative fuels.
First of all, it is a research partnership, and Exxon has a number of those as its 14,000 scientists and engineers pursue breakthrough technologies in a variety of areas.
Second of all, the amount invested, while not insignificant, is small fries when one considers Exxon brought in $442.9bn in revenue last year.
Exxon is still devoted to fossil fuels, and there is no doubt that will be its core business for the foreseeable future.
But what the foray into algae shows is that Exxon is willing to invest in something if it believes it has potential. Indeed, its competitors, BP and Shell, rushed into headline-grabbing wind and solar projects over recent years only to begin scaling back this year.
Exxon may have missed out on the intial round of investments in alternatives – and been heartily criticized for it. But, as in the old story of the tortoise and the hare, sometimes being fast does not make you a winner. Indeed, if you rush off in the wrong direction, it only makes you a loser.
Exxon may be slow to invest in alternative energy, but its foray into algae may be a winner. It will be interesting to see if Shell and BP follow Exxon into the pursuit of algae as a biofuel.