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The partnership between highly innovative renewable energy companies and big oil might not seem like domestic bliss, but ventures of this nature are becoming more and more common, and with good reason.

Take for instance, the partnership between Amyris, a California-based biofuels company utilizing microbial production of synthetic hydrocarbons, and energy giant Total, announced in December 2013. The joint venture, Total Amyris BioSolutions B.V., will see the scaling-up and marketing of renewable diesel and jet fuel using “Biofene”, Amyris’ farnesene.

Large oil companies possess not only large capital funds, but also expertise in the scale-up of the production process. Their partnership can be invaluable for many small renewable energy enterprises.

What’s in it for them?

Even in an age where the world’s oil reserves are in decline, large oil companies are not in the business of profit sharing, so why pursue partnerships? The truth is not every oil company will take this approach, and the ones that do gain a lot of in the process.

Many large energy conglomerates choose to keep the production of smart new technologies in house. They have vast R&D departments pursuing areas of clean energy production such as photovoltaic cells, biomass, and microalgae. Finland’s Neste Oil, while advertising for cleantech partnerships, has worked in-house to develop cold weather renewable diesel NEXBTL, which is produced from animal fats and structurally identical to fossil fuel diesel, thereby avoiding the cold weather crystallization common to contemporary biodiesel.

With such impressive in-house capabilities, and the funds to attract top-notch talent, the technologies chosen by big oil for partnership must be impressive and out of the box. But with such a great idea, are these biofuel companies already bound for success? Do the small biofuel companies stand to gain just as much as their big oil counterparts?

In a recent opinion poll of the BiofuelNet Canada’s Advanced Biofuels Course, students shared their thinking that there is benefit to be had by all in these partnerships. As student Olumoye Ajao put it, “The biofuels sector has a lot to learn from the petrochemical industry and would be placing itself at a big disadvantage if it does not seize the opportunity to create synergies from such collaborations.”

With competing interests and goals, and ethics can become murky. Oil companies are run by smart, savvy business and scientists. They recognize the need to diversify their energy portfolios in order to remain profitable over the next century. On the other hand, small biofuels companies are on the energy frontier, building companies on the hopes of developing drop-in fuels and biomolecules successful enough to create a rapid shift in certain niche markets. Can both sides of the partnership ignore their goals and work together to achieve something mutually beneficial? Is it ok to partner with companies who have no interest in switching over entirely to renewables, or does it distract us from the real goal of switching to renewables are quickly and entirely as possible?

Jobs in joint ventures

Large oil companies are often loathed by a new generation of young environmentalists, though admittedly environmentalism in our generation is on the decline. If you became interested in the renewable fuels sector because of a passion for the planet, you may have chosen the more difficult professional path in order to preserve your personal integrity, and you may not have imagined working for a large oil company was in your future.

But many fresh-faced green engineering graduates are discovering biofuel development with big oil as a fulfilling way to achieve their career goals.

In exploring positions within my own career, I was excited by opportunities to apply my knowledge of biofuels in a joint-venture that would undoubtedly enjoy great success with the backing of an oil giant. But when I shared news of a specific opportunity with friends and family, it received a lukewarm reception at best.

Concerns over ethical implications, and rumours of blacklisting environmental engineers who choose to work for big oil filled my lunch and dinner conversation. I began to grow concerned over the difficulties that might arise in searching for subsequent positions in alternative fuels or environmental regulation industry. As one friend put it, “No one will take you seriously.”

But if we are serious about change in the energy sector we must be willing to apply our own engineering skills to hone and optimize second and third generation biofuels, because processes must be profitable to be widely adopted, no matter how well-meaning and environmentally conscious the target audience.

Many Hands, Light Work

Do joint partnerships represent a clever way to rapidly advance new biofuel technology through capital and scale-up expertise, or do they represent the compromising of the dream to create companies to change the way we look at energy and biofuels? While the jury is still out on the outcome of many of these partnerships, the theme of this article is pragmatism.

Likely there is some sacrificing of reputation for those environmentalists who choose to participate in partnerships with big oil. Talk with colleagues and friends. Talk about the realities and challenges facing the development and production of alternative fuels, and be ready to explain that your choice goes beyond the paycheque.

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