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Big oil firms touted algae as climate solution. Now all have pulled funding

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O ne by one, big oil firms have touted their investments in algae biofuels as the future of low-carbon transportation – and one by one, they have all dropped out.

Now in the wake of the last remaining algae proponent, ExxonMobil, announcing its withdrawal, insiders say they are disappointed but not surprised.Algae research was central to Exxon’s green marketing campaigns for years, and frequently criticized as greenwashing rather than a genuine research effort.But several of its former research partners told the Guardian that it was serious about the potential of algae biofuels – explaining why it stayed in the field long past the point at which other oil companies dropped out – but not serious enough.In its 12 years in the space, Exxon invested $350m in algae biofuels, according to spokesperson Casey Norton. (Norton says that’s more than double what the company spent on touting this research in ads.)Even so, every algae researcher who spoke to the Guardian said a real effort to commercialize biofuels, algal or otherwise, requires several billion dollars, and a long-term dedication to overcoming seemingly fundamental biological limitations of wild organisms.

And no oil company was willing to go that far.“It’s very challenging and very expensive to bring these technologies to market,” said George Huber, whose biofuels research at the University of Wisconsin at Madison was funded by Exxon for years. “It’s not gonna happen overnight.

It’s great they make these commitments, but you know they need to start putting more capital into these projects.”He added: “They’re driven by Wall Street and they have to keep their stock prices high and keep their shareholders happy.

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