Google pledges not to make custom software for oil and gas extraction

A serious man in a suit speaks into a microphone.
Enlarge / Google CEO Sundar Pichai testifies before the House Judiciary Committee in 2018.Xinhua/Liu Jie via Getty Images

Google says that it will not “build custom AI/ML algorithms to facilitate upstream extraction in the oil and gas industry,” the company announced on Tuesday. This represents a small but significant win for climate activists.

Google’s comment coincided with the release of a new Greenpeace report highlighting the role of the three leading cloud-computing services–Google Cloud, Amazon Web Services, and Microsoft Azure–in helping companies find and extract oil and gas. Greenpeace notes that extracting known fossil fuel reserves would already be sufficient to push the world over 2 degrees of warming. Uncovering additional reserves will ultimately lead to even more warming.

Climate activists argue that these contracts run counter to the tech giants’ broader efforts to fight climate change. All three companies have pledged to make their data centers carbon neutral in the coming decade. Amazon is seeking to bring the entire company’s net carbon emissions down to zero by 2040. Jeff Bezos even pledged $10 billion of his own money to fund efforts to combat climate change.

At the same time, Greenpeace points out, all three companies have actively courted 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 touting the use of their machine-learning algorithms to find fossil fuel deposits. All three companies have recently revamped these sections of their websites to focus on the energy sector more broadly.

“In 2018, Google attracted former President and General Manager of BP, Darryl Willis, as VP of Oil, Gas, and Energy at Google Cloud, where he was tasked with developing new products and solutions and building trusted relationships with key leaders and companies in the oil and gas sector,” Greenpeace reports. “In August 2019, Willis left Google to become VP of the Energy Industry at Microsoft. Perhaps precipitated by Willis’s departure, the Google Cloud Platform restructured its verticals to no longer include a specific business unit for oil and gas companies.”

The companies respond

Amazon defended its industry ties 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 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.”

Microsoft pointed us to a blog post about the Greenpeace report. It called the shift to renewable energy “one of the most complex transitions in human history.”

“Technology can accelerate the transition to a zero-carbon future, so we are helping our customers reduce their carbon footprints and co-innovating low-carbon solutions,” Microsoft wrote.

In an email statement to Ars Technica, a Google spokesperson downplayed the extent of Google’s business with the oil and gas sector.

“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,” the company said. “In 2019, our revenue from oil and gas was roughly $65M, which accounts for less than one percent of total Google Cloud revenues in that same period and decreased by 11 percent when overall Cloud revenue grew 53 percent.”

In short, none of the companies is ready to go as far as Greenpeace would like. But Google seems to be signaling a desire to reduce ties to the oil and gas sector over time, while Microsoft and Amazon show no inclination to do so.

Why this fight matters

Microsoft, Amazon, and Google don’t have the 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 if they need to.

But this fight could still be significant if it helps to shift public attitudes toward oil and gas companies more generally. Think back to the 1990s, when anti-smoking campaigners succeeded in branding tobacco companies as pariahs. That, in turn, created political momentum for legal measures to limit smoking, from higher cigarette taxes to bans on smoking in bars and restaurants.

Climate campaigners are trying to accomplish something similar with oil and gas companies. They want to convince a critical mass of people that extracting fossil fuels from the ground is harmful in much the same way that selling cigarettes is harmful. If the campaign succeeds, it will make future climate reforms more politically palatable–even if those reforms ultimately drive oil and gas companies out of business.

So the significance of Google’s modest announcement isn’t so much that it will make it impossible for oil companies to get cloud-computing services–it’s what it says about the attitude of Google’s leadership. Google made only a small concession to the activists while Amazon and Microsoft haven’t budged on providing cloud services to oil companies. Still, the fact that all three companies revamped their websites to downplay oil and gas extraction is a sign that it’s a sensitive subject for each of them.

One likely reason for this is talent retention. Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have all faced pressure from activist employees who have been pushing for more action against climate change. High-tech workers have a lot of choices about where to work, and a company seen as a laggard on climate change issues could be at a disadvantage recruiting employees who care about this issue.

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