Enlarge /. Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, testifies before the House Justice Committee in 2018.
Google says it won't "develop custom AI / ML algorithms to facilitate upstream extraction in the oil and gas industry," the company said Tuesday. This is a small but significant gain for climate activists.
Google's comment coincided with the publication of a new Greenpeace report highlighting the role of three leading cloud computing services – Google Cloud, Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure – in the exploration and production of oil and gas for businesses has been. Greenpeace notes that acquiring known fossil fuel reserves would be enough to bring the world to over 2 degrees warming. The discovery of additional reserves ultimately leads to even greater warming.
Climate activists argue that these contracts run counter to technology giants' broader efforts to combat climate change. All three companies have committed to making their data centers climate neutral in the coming decade. Amazon is striving to reduce the company's net carbon emissions to zero by 2040. Jeff Bezos even pledged $ 10 billion of his own money to fund efforts to fight climate change.
At the same time, according to Greenpeace, all three companies have actively solicited business from oil and gas companies that will ultimately contribute to a warmer planet. Microsoft and Amazon both sponsored oil industry conferences last year. Until recently, all three companies had "oil and gas" sections on their cloud computing websites that advertised the use of their machine learning algorithms to find fossil fuels. All three companies have recently revised these sections of their websites to focus more on the energy sector.
"In 2018, Google attracted BP's former president and general manager, Darryl Willis, as VP of Oil, Gas and Energy at Google Cloud, where he developed new products and solutions and built trustworthy relationships with key executives and businesses The oil and gas sector was commissioned in Google Cloud, "reports Greenpeace. "In August 2019, Willis left Google to become Vice President of Microsoft's energy industry. Possibly triggered by Willis’s departure, the Google Cloud Platform has restructured its industries so that it no longer includes a specific business area for oil and gas companies. "
The companies react
Amazon defended its industry relationships in an email to Ars Technica.
"The energy industry should have access to the same technologies as other industries," the company said. "We will continue to offer cloud services to companies in the energy industry to make legacy business less carbon intensive and help them accelerate the development of renewable energy companies."
Microsoft has pointed out a blog post about the Greenpeace report. The switch to renewable energies is "one of the most complex transitions in human history".
"Technology can accelerate the transition to a carbon-free future, so we're helping our customers reduce their carbon footprint and collaborate on low-carbon solutions," Microsoft wrote.
In an email statement to Ars Technica, a Google spokesman downplayed Google's scope of business in the oil and gas sector.
"Google Cloud is a universal infrastructure and data processing platform, which is why companies from various industries are using this platform to leave their data centers and operate their IT systems in the cloud," said the company. "In 2019, our oil and gas sales were approximately $ 65 million, less than 1 percent of total Google Cloud sales over the same period, and decreased 11 percent compared to 53 percent of total cloud sales rose. "
In short, none of the companies are ready to go as far as Greenpeace would like. However, Google appears to signal a desire to reduce ties to the oil and gas sector over time, while Microsoft and Amazon are reluctant to do so.
Why this fight is important
Microsoft, Amazon and Google have no power to make or break the oil and gas industry. There are other cloud computing providers, and companies like Chevron and BP are perfectly capable of building their own data centers and hiring their own machine learning experts when needed.
However, this struggle could still be significant if it helps to change public attitudes towards oil and gas companies in general. Think back to the 1990s when anti-smoking activists managed to brand tobacco companies as pariahs. This in turn created political impetus for legal measures to limit smoking, from higher cigarette taxes to smoking bans in bars and restaurants.
Climate fighters are trying to do something similar with oil and gas companies. They want to convince a critical mass of people that extracting fossil fuels from the ground is just as harmful as selling cigarettes. If the campaign is successful, future climate reforms will become politically more palatable – even if these reforms ultimately bring oil and gas companies out of business.
So the importance of Google's humble announcement is not so great that it will make it impossible for oil companies to get cloud computing services – it is what it says about the leadership of Google. Google made only a small concession to the activists, while Amazon and Microsoft made no effort to offer oil companies cloud services. The fact that all three companies have redesigned their websites to downplay oil and gas production is a sign that this is a sensitive issue for each of them.
A likely reason for this is talent retention. Google, Amazon and Microsoft were activated by activists who pushed for further measures against climate change. High-tech employees have many options for where to work, and a company that is considered lagging on climate change issues could be at a disadvantage when it comes to recruiting people who are interested in the problem.