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Big Oil's Big in Biofuels

Exxon, Shell, and BP are among the biggest investors in biofuels
Big Oil's Big in Biofuels
Illustration by Owen Gildersleeve

BP has invested $7 billion in alternative energy since 2005. ExxonMobil is spending $600 million on a 10-year effort to turn algae into oil. And Royal Dutch Shell has invested billions of dollars in a Brazilian biofuels venture, buying up sugar cane mills, plantations, and refineries to make ethanol. In the U.S., Shell produces small lots of so-called drop-in biofuels—engine-ready products that can replace gasoline—from a pilot plant in Houston that uses sugar beets and crop waste.

On the way to a renewable energy future, a funny thing has happened: Big Oil has become the biggest investor in the race to create green fuels. In the last decade, the industry says, it has put $71 billion into zero- and low-emission and renewable energy technologies. The U.S. government, by contrast, has spent about $43 billion on similar efforts during the same period, according to the American Petroleum Institute (API), a trade group. “We are making huge bets” on biofuels and also investing in wind and low carbon technologies, says Katrina Landis, chief executive officer of BP Alternative Energy, noting that her division has grown from a handful of employees in 2005 to 5,000 today. BP is now “winding down” its solar operations, says Landis.