fb-pixelGreenwashing at Greentown Labs? The Somerville climate-tech hub’s new partner is raising alarms. - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

Greenwashing at Greentown Labs? The Somerville climate-tech hub’s new partner is raising alarms.

Britain's Prince William and Kate, princess of Wales, spoke with startup companies that work at Greentown Labs as they toured the location for a view of green technologies developed in Somerville in 2022.Angela Weiss Pool Photo via AP/Associated Press

Somerville’s Greentown Labs, the largest climate-tech incubator in North America, is a playground for climate idealists, a 100,000-square-foot campus where engineers, mechanics, and entrepreneurs plot, prototype, and launch technologies to pave the way toward a world free of fossil fuels.

So when the company recently announced a new partnership with the largest oil company in the world — one that would provide it a close relationship with the startups being fostered at Greentown Labs — it sent shock waves through parts of the climate community.

Workers from Understory sat at desks in a common area at Greentown Labs in Somerville. Aram Boghosian for The Boston Gl

The partner, Aramco Americas — the US wing of Saudi Aramco — aims to expand its oil production at least through the end of the decade, and is reportedly responsible for 4.4 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide and methane emissions since 1965.

Advertisement



“This is a really bad look for them,” said Collin Rees, US program manager for the advocacy group Oil Change International. “What you are doing when you’re partnering with fossil fuel companies is actively perpetuating their political power, when in fact we need to be doing the opposite.”

Unlike the past, when oil companies flat-out denied climate change, the industry has shifted its approach, and these kinds of arrangements have become a trend, said Lili Fuhr, director of the Fossil Economy Program at the Center for International Environmental Law. She said they can be deceptive because they allow fossil fuel companies to claim they are working toward climate solutions even as their business models call for more production of fossil fuels.

“The battleground has really shifted,” she said.

Since its founding in 2011 with just four startups, Greentown Labs has seen explosive growth, incubating more than 500 companies and earning a reputation for fostering climate-solving innovation that led to a visit from Britain’s Prince William and Catherine, princess of Wales, when they visited Boston to announce the winners of a prestigious environmental award last year. In 2021, Greentown Labs opened a second location in Houston, a deliberate decision intended to help turn the “energy capital of the world” into the “energy transition capital of the world,” wrote Greentown’s chief executive at the time, Emily Reichert.

Advertisement



This is not Greentown’s first partnership with a fossil fuel company; it previously forged partnerships with BP, Chevron, Shell, and Equinor, Norway’s state-run oil company. But this latest announcement, previously reported by The Somerville Times, stands out because of the massive scope of Aramco’s plans to expand its oil operations, and because it comes as the influence of fossil fuel companies in climate spaces is garnering extra attention. University students and faculty members are pressuring their institutions to stop taking money from fossil fuel companies; activists are pushing banks to stop financing oil and gas projects; and in international climate negotiations, the host of the next UN Climate Change Conference, the United Arab Emirates, is under harsh criticism after naming oil executive Sultan Al Jaber as president of the talks.

Kevin Taylor, who stood in for Reichert as interim chief executive after she left her role late last year, said Greentown grappled with all those issues as it evaluated whether to work with Aramco. He said that the incubator, a nonprofit, depends on contributions to help subsidize the cost of supporting startup companies and that large donors with clean climate records are hard to come by. He declined to say how much Aramco will give Greentown in the partnership arrangement.

Advertisement



“Sadly, few to no multinationals have perfect climate strategies right now,” he said. “That’s partly because the technologies to decarbonize the hardest-to-abate sectors don’t exist at scale yet, but also because these massive organizations can tend to move slowly.”

But, he said, if fossil fuel companies want to invest in climate solutions and are making commitments to help scale up startups, there is a value in that. “If we see corporates taking a step in the right direction and we feel we can give them a nudge and illuminate alternative ways of business, then we think it’s absolutely worth the effort and engagement,” he said.

Taylor noted that even before Aramco Americas joined as a partner, the company was investing in several Greentown startups. He said Greentown was encouraged by Aramco Americas’ launch last year of a $1.5 billion fund to invest in climate startups.

“We felt Aramco Americas was well positioned to deepen its engagement with our startup community as a partner,” Taylor said.

Joseph Curtatone, the president of the Northeast Clean Energy Council, who championed Greentown Labs as the former mayor of Somerville, said it’s not as black-and-white as some might think. “Energy is a complex space,” he said. “But if we’re going to solve the problem, it will take the whole of society, industry, all of us participating in driving towards solutions in that transition.”

Advertisement



But Fuhr, of the Center for International Environmental Law, said that the type of technologies a fossil fuel company is backing matters. Carbon-capture technologies are particularly attractive to oil companies because they theoretically offer a future in which oil or gas could continue to be used as a major fuel and the resulting emissions collected and locked into underground caverns or turned into other forms of fuel. But many scientists and climate advocates warn that the technology to do that isn’t yet up to the job, and that spending time and money on it distracts from the urgency of halting the use of fossil fuels.

Aramco has said its fund will invest initially in technologies that support its current business model, like carbon capture and storage and the development of lower-carbon alternative fuels.

“We’re seeing a strong push to really define techno-fixes as the solution and the way forward, saying, ‘As long as we can engineer our way out of the crisis, there is no problem,’ ” Fuhr said.

Aramco Americas says its climate investment strategy is an attempt to juggle competing responsibilities. A company spokesperson, Susan V. Gonzalez, pointed to a recent speech by Aramco chief executive Amin H. Nasser, in which he said the company’s challenge is “balancing our crucial role in global energy security with our equally crucial role in the global energy transition, while achieving our net-zero ambition.”

The company has said it aims to reach net-zero by 2050. But that pledge only applies to emissions that result from running the company itself, such as emissions from heating and cooling its own buildings and from drilling and refining operations. Not included are emissions from the oil it sells. Increasingly, scientists and climate advocates around the world are calling on oil companies to report and be held responsible for emissions from the use of their fuels after they are sold. Some companies, including BP and Norway’s Equinor, have pledged to include those emissions in their overall climate plans.

Advertisement



According to energy research and consulting firm Wood Mackenzie, those emissions account for 80 to 95 percent of total carbon emissions for an oil and gas company.

The track record of oil companies, with their history of climate denial and continued development of fossil fuels, colors an arrangement like the new partnership at Greentown Labs. But Alicia Barton, CEO of FirstLight Power and a former board member at Greentown Labs, said there are legitimate reasons for oil companies to partner with climate-tech, too.

“It is also a legitimate business interest on their part to invest in hedging against threats to their bottom line and in places that they may want to diversify their business in the future,” she said.

Robert Brulle, a visiting professor of environment and society at Brown University, said the question of whether or not Aramco or the other fossil fuel companies’ involvement at Greentown Labs is greenwashing will come down to whether it results in any actual change.

“Is this a serious effort of changing their business model?” he said, or just window dressing to “create the veneer of being concerned about actually reducing carbon emissions?”


Sabrina Shankman can be reached at sabrina.shankman@globe.com. Follow her @shankman.