Feb 14, 2020 - Technology

Climate activists target Big Tech over fossil fuel work

Illustration of a gas nozzle filling up the Earth.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Big Tech is making splash with its aggressive carbon reduction goals, but some of its employees and climate activists are criticizing Google, Microsoft and Amazon for nonetheless partnering with fossil fuel companies to use artificial intelligence to find hidden hydrocarbons and bring them to market.

Why it matters: Big oil companies are some of the richest, most resourceful enterprises in the world. They collect multiple terabytes of data daily but don't have the capacity to analyze and efficiently utilize that volume of facts without AI.

The big picture: Climate activists and even some of tech giants' own employees say the growing number of fossil fuel partnerships undercut tech companies' increasingly aggressive climate and clean energy efforts.

  • Big Tech has improved the reach of wind power and made data centers more efficient by training AI to predict how much energy should be used in a given day.
  • Tech companies were again the top corporate buyers of renewable energy in 2019, with Google contracting the most new capacity, per BloombergNEF.

What to watch: Global spending on AI in oil, gas and renewable energy industries is expected to reach $7.79 billion by 2024, per BIS Research.

  • U.S. tech companies are dominating AI in the energy sector. They took in the most net revenue globally in 2018 — roughly $657 million — by selling AI to oil, gas and power industries including renewable energy, BIS told Axios.
  • Tech companies in China netted roughly $180 million for the same thing.

Some ways AI and cloud services are used for oil and gas:

  • Microsoft cloud computing software helps Chevron analyze drilling data from approximately 40 complex wells, including some in Kazakhstan and several in the Deepwater Gulf of Mexico, Chevron spokesperson Jan Sieving told Axios.
  • Amazon provides its AI-enabled CloudWatch to GE Oil & Gas and heavily advertises its AWS machine learning as a tool to make oil drilling and production faster, reduce costs and analyze trillions of terabytes of data.
  • Google Cloud has helped Total quickly explore oil and gas fields through AI data analysis since April 2018, a Total spokesperson confirmed to Axios.

Some ways AI is used for renewable energy:

  • Microsoft Azure AI has been used to help energy providers in the U.K. avoid energy-balancing fees imposed by national energy authorities and analyze data for solar energy providers.
  • AWS' SageMaker helps a German-based energy company track customers' online behavior. It also supplies deep learning and predictive tech to New Zealand's largest electricity and gas distributor, a Nordic branch of World Fuel Services, a California energy and battery company, and the U.K.'s EDF Energy.
  • Google is still optimizing a DeepMind AI algorithm launched in 2016 to autonomously run its data centers' cooling systems. Their system was the first of its kind for industrial facilities and data centers, Google spokesperson Mara Harris told Axios.

Between the lines: Big Tech companies say that working with the oil industry isn’t at odds with their climate commitments. In some cases, they're working with Big Oil on clean energy plans — like BP giving AWS renewable power.

  • Microsoft is "committed to continuing to work with all our customers, including those in the oil and gas business ... while innovating together to achieve the business needs of a net-zero carbon future," per their "carbon negative" release.
  • Amazon said in a statement to Axios it will "continue to provide cloud services" to oil, gas and renewable energy companies as they work to "make their legacy businesses less carbon intensive and accelerate development of renewable energy businesses."

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