Google Says It Will Not Build Custom A.I. for Oil and Gas Extraction

A Greenpeace report details Silicon Valley’s ties to Big Oil — and spurs Google to take a step toward opting out

Photo: SOPA Images/Getty Images

After a year of weathering criticism from tech workers, politicians, and activists over its oil industry contracts, Google has stated that it will not create new custom A.I. or machine learning algorithms that would help the oil and gas industry enhance its ability to extract fossil fuels.

“We will not … build custom A.I./ML algorithms to facilitate upstream extraction in the oil and gas industry,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement provided to OneZero. The declaration comes in response to a new Greenpeace report that details 14 separate contracts between three of the biggest tech companies — Google, Amazon, and Microsoft — and major oil firms.

Over the last two years, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, and Amazon Web Services have inked deals with firms like Exxon, Chevron, and Total to use A.I. and automation to accelerate fossil fuel exploration and extraction, linking the last generation of the world’s richest, most powerful companies with the newest. Microsoft, Google, and Amazon have built web portals to entice oil and gas clients, and each company has set up divisions aimed at winning business from the oil industry. With a surfeit of disorganized, backlogged data, tapering production rates, and deep financial reserves, major oil corporations are attractive clients to cloud service providers.

After reports emerged last year that tech companies were courting oil firms, tech employees and activists pushed the tech companies to adopt more stringent climate policies. A significant climate change accountability movement emerged at Amazon, and smaller ones followed at Microsoft and Google, where workers walked off the job to participate in a climate strike. Google, in particular, has prided itself on its aggressive adoption of clean energy. In 2018, the company announced it had hit a hallmark of “buying enough renewable energy to match 100 percent of Google’s global annual electricity use.” But the tech-oil deals continued apace. The same week Microsoft made a public pledge to go “carbon negative,” the company also sponsored an oil conference in Saudi Arabia. Amazon drew headlines for its own Climate Pledge, which committed the company to becoming carbon neutral by 2040, but it also joined an “Accelerate Oil” initiative two weeks later.

Image: Greenpeace

Greenpeace is hoping that its new report, Oil in the Cloud: How Tech Companies are Helping Big Oil Profit from Climate Destruction, will draw renewed attention and scrutiny on the relationship between these two mammoth industries.

The report finds that “Microsoft appears to have the most contracts with oil and gas companies” and concludes that the tech company “can never truly achieve its recently announced ‘carbon negative’ goal while continuing to aid the oil and gas sector with exploration and production.” A single contract between Microsoft and ExxonMobil to accelerate production in the Permian Basin “could lead to emissions on the scale of 21% of Microsoft’s annual carbon footprint,” the report states. (Microsoft did not respond to a request for comment.)

“We will not … build custom A.I./ML algorithms to facilitate upstream extraction in the oil and gas industry.”

“For us, it’s pretty simple,” Greenpeace researcher and report co-author Elizabeth Jardim told OneZero. “Accelerating oil extraction is not an application tech companies should be using A.I. for at all.”

The report points out that none of the companies count emissions generated by the A.I. and automation technologies they sell to the oil and gas industry when tallying companywide emissions for their sustainability goals. “I don’t think the tech companies know how to measure the scale of these projects,” Jardim says, “because it doesn’t fall under their typical accountability frameworks. I don’t know if the emissions are being measured at all.”

When asked about the contrast between these contracts and their own clean energy goals, tech companies often claim to be supplying oil and gas companies with the technology they need to transition to cleaner energies. “We’re going to work hard for energy companies,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said at the announcement of its Climate Pledge. “And our view is we’re going to work very hard to make sure that as they transition they have the best tools possible.”

The Greenpeace report finds that the tech companies are in fact almost never supplying transition tools. “Amazon has also issued a policy on its contracts with oil and gas, stating it will provide cloud services to the energy industry to help them accelerate the development of their renewable energy business,” the report states. “However, this does not line up with the nature of many of the machine-learning contracts we examined. Indeed, AWS appears to have only one example in which its capabilities are advancing renewable energy.”

When reached for comment, Amazon directed OneZero to its Positions page, which states: “The energy industry should have access to the same technologies as other industries. We will continue to provide cloud services to companies in the energy industry to make their legacy businesses less carbon intensive and help them accelerate development of renewable energy businesses.”

After facing sustained criticism as a result of their partnerships, the report shows that, in the spring of 2020, Amazon and Microsoft changed the language on their public-facing websites to deemphasize the focus on “oil and gas” services in lieu of “energy” services. In each case, the actual A.I. and data services advertised stayed about the same.

Image: AWS
Image: AWS

The report suggests that Google has done more than either Amazon or Microsoft to slow its contracts with the oil and gas industry. In 2018, Google hired a former BP executive, Darryl Willis, to be its VP of oil, gas, and energy at Google Cloud. But after Willis left for Microsoft a year later, the report notes, Google appears to have closed down the entire business unit.

In a recent interview with The Cube, Will Grannis, managing director of the office of the CTO at Google Cloud, said that when it comes to the oil and gas industry, “We don’t develop custom A.I./ML solutions that facilitate upstream extraction.”

In a statement provided to OneZero, a Google spokesperson elaborated on the policy, which had not previously been made public:

Google Cloud is a general purpose infrastructure and data processing platform. We therefore have companies from several industries using this platform to exit their data centers and run their IT systems on the Cloud. But we will not, for instance, build custom A.I./ML algorithms to facilitate upstream extraction in the oil and gas industry. In 2019, our revenue from oil and gas was roughly $65M, which accounts for less than 1% of total Google Cloud revenues in that same period and decreased by 11% when overall Cloud revenue grew 53%. Further, according to HG Insights data, IT spend from the Oil & Gas sector was roughly $113B in 2019. But spend on cloud services in the Oil & Gas segment is only estimated to reach $1.3B in 2020 and Google Cloud is only a small percentage of this aggregate spend. We are continuing to see great traction with renewable energy providers, many of whom inherently understand the benefits of the cloud in advancing their goals including AES Corporation, Veolia, and Simple Energy. We are building and sharing custom A.I. Models and Algorithms with several renewable energy companies and are also taking algorithms that we use to make Google’s own data centers highly efficient and providing them to make buildings more energy efficient for instance.

Google still has a number of contracts on the books with oil companies — like a 2018 deal with Anadarko, one of the U.S.’s largest exploration and production companies. A Google spokesperson told OneZero that those contracts will be honored. The spokesperson declined to provide more specifics about how the apparently new policy will be implemented, or what the guidelines will be. Though the wording remains vague, Google is the only major tech company thus far to officially disavow building A.I. tools for enhancing oil extraction.

“Accelerating oil extraction is not an application tech companies should be using A.I. for at all.”

Greenpeace’s Jardim indicated that Google was also one of the two tech companies willing to engage in a constructive dialogue about the new report. “Whenever we do reports with these companies we keep it confidential,” Jardim said. “I will say that we had productive conversations with both Google and Microsoft.”

Google’s apparent policy change is still only a small step toward true tech sector divestment from oil and gas — time will tell whether this a genuine shift in its business or linguistic maneuvering. Either way, there’s much to be done before Silicon Valley might be weaned off its new oil habit.

“We’re calling for a moratorium on new oil and gas contracts,” Jardim said. “Then, we’d ask that they assess and phase out the contracts that are most problematic for the climate.” Ultimately, Greenpeace hopes this fledgling tech company alliance will be severed altogether. “We’re hoping that they distance themselves from the oil and gas sector entirely.”

Update: This piece has been updated with new figures from the Oil in the Cloud: How Tech Companies are Helping Big Oil Profit from Climate Destruction report.

Senior editor, OneZero, books, futures, fiction. Author of The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone, founder of Terraform @ Motherboard @ VICE.

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