How Amazon Is Bringing the Keystone XL Pipeline Online

The company behind the controversial tar sands oil pipeline is hosting its digital infrastructure and developing A.I. and automation tools with Amazon Web Services

Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Amazon has cemented a partnership with the company that owns the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, recently announcing that TC Energy is “going all-in” on Amazon Web Services. The Canadian pipeline corporation, formerly known as TransCanada, has “migrated almost 90 percent of its corporate and commercial applications” to Amazon Web Services, according to a May 13th statement from Amazon. TC Energy plans to migrate all of its data to Amazon’s cloud, and AWS has already helped the pipeline company develop a suite of workflow automation, data analytics, and machine learning programs.

“TC Energy is going all-in on the world’s leading cloud, moving its entire infrastructure to AWS,” the AWS release says. “TC Energy is leveraging the breadth and depth of AWS services, including machine learning, analytics, database, serverless, storage, and compute to deliver energy and generate power more efficiently for millions of homes in North America.”

The announcement comes just weeks after TC Energy’s long-contested Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry some of the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive oil on the planet from the Alberta tar sands basin to Nebraska, faced a major legal setback when its permit was vacated by a federal judge.

“So Amazon is helping build the Keystone pipeline — as plain an example of climatic destruction and human rights abuse as exists on the planet.”

It also comes amid a time of tumult for Amazon, which has, in recent weeks, faced criticism for its treatment of frontline workers during the coronavirus pandemic, and for firing employees calling for more protections. Last year, Amazon tech workers launched a movement calling on CEO Jeff Bezos to adopt a stricter company-wide climate policy and to cancel its contracts with oil and gas companies. Bezos responded by issuing Amazon’s Climate Pledge, which promised to see the company go carbon neutral by 2040. He also stated that the company would continue to do business with the oil and gas industry. This puts Amazon at odds with Google, which recently announced it would not develop custom A.I. tools that enhanced the extraction rate of fossil fuels.

“So Amazon is helping build the Keystone pipeline — as plain an example of climatic destruction and human rights abuse as exists on the planet,” said author, activist, and 350.org founder Bill McKibben, who led the opposition to Keystone XL for much of the 2010s, to OneZero in an email. “And for what? So the richest man on earth can be a little richer? The levels of ugliness here just seem endless.”

Keystone XL is slated to carry 830,000 barrels per day of tar sands crude. The tar sands industry in Alberta is currently in financial crisis due to the high cost and energy intensiveness of extracting the crude. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney recently gave the company a $4.2 billion loan to make building Keystone XL more financially viable. The pipeline has long served as a focal point for both the U.S. and Canadian climate movements, who have organized an opposition to attempt to avoid giving tar sands oil a cross-continental path to Gulf Coast oil refinery destinations. The pioneering climate scientist James Hansen has referred to it as a “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.”

In 2015, President Obama denied the company the presidential permit it needed to proceed on the grounds that it is a border-crossing pipeline. In 2017, President Trump granted the permit. Keystone XL’s stalled progress has meant billions of dollars of lost revenue for TC Energy, something the company spelled out recently in court documents. Amazon’s technology promises to make pipeline flow operations more efficient and profitable, alluring propositions to a company facing fiscal pain.

Both Amazon and TC Energy declined interviews, or to comment on the specifics of the deal. (Amazon pointed OneZero to its position statement, which says “the energy industry should have access to the same technologies as other industries,” while TC Energy spokesperson said “We take a thoughtful and holistic approach to all environmental concerns, whether it’s with our partnerships or how we operate our pipelines.”)

Climate scientist James Hansen has referred to Keystone XL as a “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.”

But in its statement, Amazon claims that “by going all-in on AWS, TC Energy was able to achieve significant savings that the company is redirecting into further investments in research, development, and innovation, including new machine learning projects.” In the same statement, Chris Foster, the vice president and chief information officer at TC Energy, said, “Since moving to AWS, we’ve shifted our focus to automating workflows and unlocking efficiencies, rather than operating infrastructure and managing costly and complex upgrades.”

The data migration process began in 2017. TC Energy, a Canadian company with a sprawling pipeline network throughout North America, now joins a legion of major oil and gas companies allying themselves with major tech companies to automate oil extraction, sale, and distribution.

The company has addressed how the technology assists in moving oil and gas through its pipelines, however, when speaking to its industry peers.

Mitchell Browning, TC Energy’s senior developer for U.S. Real Time Systems, who focuses on machine learning and analytics platforms, said months earlier at a presentation given at a tech conference held in San Francisco that AWS technology can help TC Energy maximize the profitability of its pipeline networks by combining third-party data sources, weather data, commercial data, and pipeline metered flow data into the AWS machine learning platform.

“Now we know that all of these data sources are important in producing an accurate forecast,” Browning said. “And we also know there’s a strong correlation between those features and the demand in our pipeline system. So we want to build machine learning models that can…take all this information and produce a single demand forecast.”

On the day TC Energy and AWS announced the joinder, TC Energy’s chief information officer Chris Foster told SiliconANGLE.com that the company is “already starting to see some great opportunities, some great possibilities” with the AWS platform.

“[O]ne use that we already see for that, that has the potential to speed up our interactions with regulators, help us refocus some costs internally on safety initiatives and that type of thing, so that’s one example. We’re also using machine learning to tell us more about how you can continue to operate the pipe more safely…more reliably,” said Foster.

AWS also also has similar partnerships with Trans Austria Gasleitung, an Austrian natural gas pipeline company and Willbros Group, a Houston-based oil and gas construction, maintenance, and facilities development services contractor company.

Greenpeace USA recently released a report titled “Oil in the Cloud” that details the myriad business relationships between Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and the oil and gas industry. Report co-author Elizabeth Jardim, a senior corporate campaigner for the group, told OneZero that she sees Amazon’s new partnership with TC Energy and other pipeline companies as flying in the face of the Climate Pledge.

“The science is clear that the continued expansion of oil and gas production is placing our climate goals out of reach,” Jardim told OneZero. “Machine learning solutions that aid with oil exploration or optimize refining and distribution are a loss for the climate.”

San Diego-based freelance investigative journo. Climate beat reporter/producer, The Real News Network. Bylines: The Intercept, The Guardian, AJAM, DeSmog, Etc.

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