Singapore student activists question ExxonMobil backing of low carbon solutions lab

Students from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University says there is a conflict of interest in the oil major’s involvement in a project that claims “to help build a more sustainable future,” and point to the firm’s checkered history on climate. NTU and Exxon have defended the lab, saying it supports the green energy transition.

The ExxonMobil-NTU-A*STAR Corporate Lab was launched in April
The ExxonMobil-NTU-A*STAR Corporate Lab was launched in April to develop solutions that would "help lower carbon emissions, contribute to resource efficiency, and help build a more sustainable future." Student group NTUDivest has said the partnership between their university and the oil major is "highly concerning". Image: NTU

Student climate activists from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) have raised concern about a new corporate laboratory for low carbon technologies backed by oil and gas major ExxonMobil.

The ExxonMobil-NTU-A*STAR Corporate Lab, which launched at the university on 26 April, has been billed as a way for industry and academia to work together on solutions that “help lower carbon emissions, contribute to resource efficiency, and help build a more sustainable future.”

The S$60 million (US$44 million) lab’s areas of focus include carbon capture and carbonation technology for industry by-products and converting methane into hydrogen and solid carbon materials.

NTUIDivest's social media campaign in opposition to their university's low carbon solutions corporate lab.

NTUIDivest’s social media campaign challenges NTU over the credibility of the ExxonMobil-NTU-A*STAR Corporate Lab. Image: NTUDivest

NTUDivest, which is part of the Singapore-wide Students for a Fossil Free Future (S4F) group that campaigns against oil and gas companies’ influence over the education system, said NTU’s partnership with ExxonMobil was “highly concerning.”

“Given ExxonMobil’s current and past environmental track record worldwide, we are extremely doubtful that funding of Singapore’s clean energy transition should be so heavily funded and influenced by one of the most notorious mega oil companies.”

“From climate breakdown to toxic environmental pollution, ExxonMobil is no stranger to playing down their effects,” the group said in an Instagram post. The #ExxonKnew campaign has pointed out that the oil company has long known about the dangers of climate change and has lobbied aggressively against climate action. 

NTUDivest called on their university to consider the conflict of interest in an oil and gas company funding a low carbon solutions lab.

It publicly questioned the university on whether the lab’s lower carbon fuels would be accompanied by a reduction in carbon-intensive technologies and products and therefore emissions. 

The lab’s other focus areas include the application of carbon in concrete and the conversion of biomass into lower greenhouse gas emission fuels.

NTUDivest also challenged the university to be transparent on how the impact of the lab’s solutions would be assessed and monitored. 

“We’re tired of industry interests helming our public universities,” NTUDivest said.

NTU, Exxon respond

NTU told Eco-Business that working with industry would “translate knowledge into solutions that will benefit society by supporting the green energy transition and other areas of sustainability.”

The university said it would determine its approach to assessing the impact of new technologies “as its research programmes take shape.”

The lab was formed through a grant scheme under Singapore’s Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2025 (RIE2025) plan to increase the base of research and innovation firms in Singapore, NTU explained.

ExxonMobil told Eco-Business that its role in the lab was to invest “in real solutions that are reducing emissions today.”

“Many of these potential solutions are still nascent and require further research and development to solve the real-world challenges of scale-up and commercialisation,” a company spokesperson said.

“Our teams are working to meet local and regional needs for stable supplies of energy and essential products, while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions in support of a lower-emission future.”

“This will require unprecedented innovation and collaboration at scale,” it said, adding that there was no “one size fits all” solution to lowering emissions.

ExxonMobil became the last global oil super major to set a net zero target in 2022, when it committed to spend US$15 billion over the following five years on low-carbon efforts and emissions reductions – a budget that has since increased to more than US$20 billion through to 2027 – and achieve net zero by 2050.

The plan has been criticised as unambitious as it does not include Scope 3, or full value chain emissions, which make up the bulk of the company’s vast climate footprint.

The company filed a legal complaint to stop a proposal from activist shareholders for bolder climate targets from going to vote at the May shareholder meeting, a move that has prompted the United States’ biggest public pension plan to consider voting against the re-election of CEO Darren Woods to the board.

S4F argues that oil and gas major such as ExxonMobil, Shell and BP have infiltrated Singapore’s education system to promote their brands, recruit new talent, and gain social approval. The presence of Big Oil on campus restricts academic freedoms and the ability of universities to freely criticise the environmental impact of fossil fuels firms, the group says.

ExxonMobil has sponsored free music concerts at National University of Singapore, the country’s largest university, since the 1980s, and also backed conservation programmes and a mobile fabrication laboratory at Singapore University of Technology and Design.

ExxonMobil’s largest refinery outside of the US is located in Singapore, and the firm wields considerable influence in Singaporean society. Its former Asia-Pacific chairman was a member of a taskforce of industry leaders appointed to revitalise the economy after the Covid-19 downturn.

In October, S4F released a report that found that Singapore’s universities have become more entrenched with Big Oil since they started campaigning for a fossil fuel-free education system in 2017. The city-state’s universities have largely ignored calls from S4F to divest from fossil fuels, and find alternative sponsors for scholarships and academic prizes, the group said.

The launch of the ExxonMobil-NTU-A*STAR Corporate Lab emerges four months after a climate tech startup birthed by Shell to “advance the energy transition” drew criticism for greenwashing the company’s extraction activities. Named Onward, the firm focuses more on improving oil and gas outcomes than clean tech solutions, a report in The Guardian found.


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