Big Tech still deals with Big Oil

They are work­ing hard to de­velop ties to fos­sil fuel in­dus­try

The Morning Call - - NATION & WORLD - By Matt O’Brien

Em­ployee ac­tivism and out­side pres­sure have pushed big tech com­pa­nies like Ama­zon, Mi­crosoft and Google into promis­ing to slash their car­bon emis­sions.

But there’s an­other thing these tech giants aren’t cut­ting: Their grow­ing business ties to the oil and gas in­dus­try.

When Mi­crosoft held an all­staff meet­ing in Septem­ber, an em­ployee asked CEO Satya Nadella if it was eth­i­cal for the com­pany to be sell­ing its cloud com­put­ing ser­vices to fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies, ac­cord­ing to two other Mi­crosoft em­ploy­ees who de­scribed the ex­change on con­di­tion they not be named. Such part­ner­ships, the worker told Nadella, were ac­cel­er­at­ing the oil com­pa­nies’ green­house gas emis­sions.

Mi­crosoft and other tech giants have been com­pet­ing with one an­other to strike lu­cra­tive part­ner­ships with Exxon Mo­bil, Chevron, Shell, BP and other en­ergy firms, in many cases sup­ply­ing them not just with re­mote data stor­age but also ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence tools for pin­point­ing bet­ter drilling spots or speed­ing up re­fin­ery pro­duc­tion.

The oil and gas in­dus­try is spend­ing $20 bil­lion each year on cloud ser­vices, which ac­counts for about 10% of the to­tal cloud mar­ket, ac­cord­ing to Vivek Chi­dambaram, a man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Ac­cen­ture’s en­ergy con­sul­tancy. It’s not yet clear whether the ex­trac­tion in­dus­try is get­ting its money’s worth, although ex­perts re­main bullish about the ap­pli­ca­tion of ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy to oil and gas ex­plo­ration.

Nadella sought to as­suage em­ployee con­cerns at the Sept. 12 meet­ing, first by re­it­er­at­ing Mi­crosoft’s in­ter­nal ef­forts on en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity, ac­cord­ing to the work­ers, who asked for anonymity be­cause they feared re­tal­i­a­tion for speak­ing about an in­ter­nal meet­ing.

The em­ploy­ees said Nadella also de­fended Mi­crosoft’s en­ergy part­ners, point­ing out their in­vest­ments in re­search­ing and de­vel­op­ing more sus­tain­able en­ergy pro­duc­tion meth­ods.

“There’s no fos­sil fuel CEO who sits there and says, ‘You know, I’m just gonna deny cli­mate change,’ ” Nadella said, ac­cord­ing to the em­ploy­ees’ tran­script of his re­marks. “If any­thing, they’re all say­ing, ‘Let us have, in fact, the reg­u­la­tion, the pric­ing mech­a­nisms that get us to this fu­ture.’ ”

Mi­crosoft said in an emailed state­ment Tues­day that it is “fo­cused on help­ing com­pa­nies of all kinds be­come more ef­fi­cient, in­clud­ing en­ergy com­pa­nies.” It de­clined to com­ment on Nadella’s re­marks, which were part of a reg­u­larly sched­uled “all-hands” gath­er­ing in which the CEO wel­comes ques­tions on a range of top­ics.

Less than a week af­ter that ex­change and days be­fore a planned world­wide protest over cli­mate change, Mi­crosoft an­nounced yet an­other ma­jor deal for its Azure cloud com­put­ing plat­form — this time with Chevron and oil field ser­vices gi­ant Sch­lum­berger. The tim­ing of the an­nounce­ment ahead of the cli­mate protest and United Na­tions cli­mate ac­tion meet­ings an­gered some en­vi­ron­men­tally minded Mi­crosoft work­ers and caught the at­ten­tion of out­siders.

“It is un­con­scionable that amid global cli­mate protests, tech giants like Mi­crosoft are an­nounc­ing ma­jor part­ner­ships with Big Oil,” said Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date and Ver­mont Sen. Bernie San­ders, in a tweet that co­in­cided with the Sept. 20 global cli­mate strike. “We must hold them ac­count­able, de­mand they break ties with the fos­sil fuel in­dus­try, and move rapidly to sus­tain­able en­ergy.”

Echo­ing that mes­sage was a small group of Mi­crosoft em­ploy­ees who car­ried card­board signs to a lunchtime protest that day out­side of Mi­crosoft’s head­quar­ters in Red­mond, Washington. “No Azure For Oil,” said one of the signs.

Af­ter months of em­ployee ac­tivism, Ama­zon CEO Jeff Be­zos said he was push­ing his com­pany to the fore­front on sus­tain­abil­ity, com­mit­ting it to have 100% of its en­ergy use come from so­lar pan­els and other re­new­able en­ergy by 2030.

But he also de­fended Ama­zon’s work with the oil and gas in­dus­try, ar­gu­ing that “we need to help them in­stead of vil­ify them.”

Some ex­perts say AI and cloud ser­vices could ac­tu­ally play a role in curb­ing emis­sions.

Deny­ing cloud com­put­ing ser­vices to the oil and gas in­dus­try would do lit­tle to ad­dress the big­ger prob­lem of the world’s on­go­ing de­pen­dence on fos­sil fu­els, said Aseem Prakash, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for En­vi­ron­men­tal Pol­i­tics at the Univer­sity of Washington.

“We would not want to col­lapse the fos­sil fuel in­dus­try,” Prakash said. “We would want a soft land­ing.”

If any­thing, he said, an oil com­pany’s shift to an­other com­pany’s cloud plat­form may have some en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits be­cause it is more ef­fi­cient than run­ning its dig­i­tal op­er­a­tions on its own servers. Driv­ing down costs could also help open the door to in­vest­ments in other, less pol­lut­ing meth­ods for gen­er­at­ing en­ergy.

It’s less clear whether AI is mit­i­gat­ing pol­lu­tion or wors­en­ing it. In their pitches to work with oil and gas com­pa­nies, cloud providers such as Ama­zon and Mi­crosoft have boasted of ad­vanced ma­chine-learn­ing tools that can sift through huge troves of ge­o­logic and seis­mic data to help make de­ci­sions about where to ex­tract re­sources.

An un­signed state­ment from Mi­crosoft’s protest­ing work­ers said they’ve been “made com­plicit” by the com­pany’s role in warm­ing the planet.

“Mi­crosoft makes mil­lions of dol­lars in prof­its by help­ing fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies ex­tract more oil,” the state­ment said.

But it’s not clear if tech giants are ac­tu­ally help­ing that much — in part be­cause they may be over­stat­ing their own role in trans­form­ing Big Oil with AI.

“The sun­dae they’re sell­ing is the cloud,” said Chi­dambaram, the Ac­cen­ture an­a­lyst. “The cher­ries they’re putting on it is the an­a­lyt­ics.”

Chi­dambaram said that’s be­cause oil in­dus­tries are still cagey about shar­ing what they know about undergroun­d re­serves and don’t want third par­ties an­a­lyz­ing that data.

Chi­dambaram said in the long run, how­ever, AI could ac­tu­ally help meet cli­mate goals. For ex­am­ple, ma­chines that can cap­ture bet­ter data and quickly an­a­lyze it could also help de­tect and re­duce the leak­age of meth­ane from wells and pipe­lines, a sig­nif­i­cant con­trib­u­tor to green­house gas emis­sions.

“Data can be used in many ways,” he said. “It’s about how it’s be­ing used.”

ELAINE THOMP­SON/AP PHO­TOS

Ama­zon work­ers gather last month in front of the com­pany’s Spheres, par­tic­i­pat­ing in the cli­mate strike in Seat­tle.

Mi­crosoft CEO Satya Nadella de­fended Mi­crosoft’s en­ergy part­ners.

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