They happily save money and earn public profile by decarbonizing the electricity that drives their own operations. But that hasn’t stopped tech giants like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon from helping oil and gas companies automate their operations to extract more climate-busting carbon at less cost.
“The spectre of catastrophic climate change has never loomed so large,” Gizmodo writes in an exposé published last week, citing the IPCC’s 12-year deadline to cut global greenhouse gas emissions by 45%. “And yet, the biggest and most influential tech companies are making deals and partnerships with oil companies that move the needle in the opposite direction. Amazon, Google, and Microsoft have all struck lucrative arrangements—collectively worth billions of dollars—to provide automation, cloud, and AI services to some of the world’s biggest oil companies, and they are actively pursuing more.”
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The contracts “are explicitly aimed at streamlining, improving, and rendering oil and gas extraction operations more profitable,” adds writer and section editor Brian Merchant. “These deals weren’t secret and many have been openly reported in trade journals and business sections, but somehow big tech’s sweeping embrace of the oil industry has managed to escape wider notice and criticism.”
But not entirely. “It is indeed disturbing to see the tech industry helping move civilization back into the fossil age even as they purport to be about cutting edge technology intended to lead us into the future,” said veteran Penn State climate hawk Dr. Michael Mann. “It ultimately speaks to the amorality of corporate interests.”
It made the news last month when Google, Microsoft, and other tech companies sponsored a U.S. conference that was peddling climate denial, Gizmodo notes. Not so much when Google hired a 25-year veteran of BP as vice president of its new oil, gas, and energy division. “If it has to do with heating, lighting, or mobility for human beings on this planet, we’re interested in it,” Darryl Willis told the Wall Street Journal at the time. “Our plan is to be the partner of choice for the energy industry.”
Gizmodo details deals the company has struck with Andarko Petroleum, French fossil Total, Houston oil investment bank Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co., and oilfield services giants Baker Hughes and Schlumberger, while exploring an assignment to build a tech hub and data centres for Saudi Aramco.
“Google and Anadarko Petroleum, one of the largest U.S. exploration and production companies, are using artificial intelligence to analyse large volumes of seismic and operational data to find oil, maximize output, and increase efficiency,” the Financial Times reported in December.
The upshot: “Google is using machine learning to find more oil reserves both above and below the seas, its data services are streamlining and automating extant oilfield operations, and it is helping oil companies find ways to trim costs and compete with clean energy upstarts,” Gizmodo concludes. “It’s barely worth noting at this point that precious little, if any, DNA from Google’s Don’t Be Evil days persists. Still, it’s striking to see Google transforming itself into a veritable innovation arm of the fossil fuel extraction industry—at precisely the time when an understanding that climate change poses an existential threat to populations across large swaths of the globe has never been more acute.”
And Google’s not alone. Amazon Web Services has attracted companies like BP and Royal Dutch Shell with a service that “allows oil and gas companies to streamline and reinvent complex, customized IT work flows to thrive despite low prices, shrinking margins, and market volatility,” its website boasts. “Explorers can extract deep insights faster to improve field planning,” while geoscientists can “identify potential reservoirs faster and cheaper, and refineries can optimize production with predictive maintenance and predictive inventory planning.”
And Microsoft—despite founder Bill Gates’ billion-dollar climate action fund—has a plan for “empowering oil and gas with artificial intelligence”, which became the theme for its exhibit at a recent fossil trade show in Abu Dhabi. “AI, leveraging of the intelligent cloud and edge computing…these manifest in better reservoir characterization, optimized drilling, reduced down time, and safer operations, to mention a few,” a Microsoft director said at the conference. Gizmodo says Microsoft has successfully pitched its services to colossal fossils Chevron, BP, and Equinor, formerly Statoil. And Rigzone reported on a deal with ExxonMobil late last week.
“I reached out to each of these companies and asked them point blank whether they considered it ethical to build AI and automated systems, to provide data services to the companies that are actively accelerating climate change,” Merchant writes. “Not a single one even bothered to respond.”
Merchant opens his feature report with an announcement by “two very large but relatively obscure companies,” Schlumberger and Rockwell Automation, that “made few ripples outside the energy industry” but could have a lasting impact on global greenhouse gas emissions. The firms are forming a new joint venture to “sell equipment and services to advance digital technology and automation in the oilfield,” the Houston Chronicle reported, in order to “help producers churn out more oil and gas with fewer workers.” Rockwell is the world’s biggest industrial automation company, Schlumberger its biggest oilfield services provider.
The joint venture, Sensia, “will enable drilling rigs to run on automated schedules, enhance communication between oilfield equipment, and help machinery assess when it is in need of repair or modification—all in the name of making drilling for oil smarter, cheaper, and more efficient,” Merchant notes. “Which, of course, is precisely the opposite of what needs to be happening in regards to the churning out of oil right now.”