How Big Tech Helped Big Oil Automate the Climate Crisis

April 1, 2019

Companies such as Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have triumphantly announced themselves as petroleum production partners, Gizmodo reporter Brian Merchant has documented in a recent report

Companies such as Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have triumphantly announced themselves as petroleum production partners, Gizmodo reporter Brian Merchant has documented in a recent report


How Big Tech Has Helped Big Oil Automate the Climate Crisis

Story Transcript

DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris, reporting for The Real News Network from Montreal, Canada.

When it comes to increasing profitability through automation, the orbits of Big Tech and Big Oil have merged, and household names such as Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have led the way. They’ve done so under the umbrella of their lesser-known subsidiaries Google Cloud, Amazon Web Services, and Microsoft Azure. Both Microsoft and Amazon had a major presence at the recent CERAWeek conference in Houston, considered one of the biggest annual convenings of oil and gas industry thought leaders in the world. Andrew Jassy, CEO of Amazon Web Services, even spoke at the event. Let’s listen a little bit what he had to say.

ANDREW JASSY: A lot of the things that we have built and released recently have been very much informed by conversations with our oil and gas customers and partners. And these are companies like Shell, and BP, and ConocoPhillips, and Halliburton and Woodside. You know, we have a pretty broad group.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Tech companies often bill themselves as pioneers in the use of renewable energy and clean technology. But a far different reality arises in recent reporting by Gizmodo reporter Brian Merchant. Brian has reported that the union between Big Tech and major oil exploration and production companies has solidified in recent months. Further, he’s revealed that oil and gas industry has also invested heavily in attempting to automate jobs, and not just in the extraction process itself.

Joining us to discuss this is the author of this reporting himself, Brian Merchant. Brian is a Los Angeles-based reporter who focuses on artificial intelligence and the technology sector at Gizmodo. He formerly worked as a reporter for the publication Vice Motherboard, and is the author of the 2017 book The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone. His forthcoming book project is about the history of automation. Thanks for joining us today, Brian.

BRIAN MERCHANT: Thanks for having me.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So, Brian, tell us a little bit about what prompted you to go down this reporting rabbit hole. What was your aha moment when you saw this as an important comingling between these two sectors, and what are the climate change implications going forward of the phenomenon that you’ve observed?

BRIAN MERCHANT: Yeah, so I noticed a sort of a small report about a deal between the an old oil company, it’s kind of a Halliburton competitor, Schoenberg, which is one of the biggest oil services companies in Texas, and Rockwell Automation, which is one of the biggest providers of industrial automation worldwide. And they were teaming up to do a new project where they were going to sort of increase automation in the oil field, but everything from sort of getting rigs pumping autonomously, allowing for fewer rig hands in the field, to networking and using big data to collect more information about how and when the ideal conditions for pumping are.

So I saw this union between oil and technology, and I set out looking for other examples of what was going on. And to my surprise this has been going on right under our noses for at least a year or two. Google, which is one of the longest and most vocal proponents for clean tech, clean energy, it’s invested in things like Makani wind, kind of taking these wind these moonshots for for clean energy. That’s its sort of, you know, reputation in the field. Last year they opened a bonafide oil and gas division where they’re sending their representatives down to Houston to sell oil and gas field services, things like AI systems that can help oil companies explore for more oil in the field, systems that can sort of automate the process of extracting that oil, making it more efficient. I found that Microsoft is teaming up with heavy hitters like ExxonMobil to try to make more efficient the process of extracting oil, and the marquee sort of announcement that they just made was between Exxon and Microsoft, was in the Permian Basin they’re going to help Exxon extract 55,000 more barrels of oil per day.

So there’s just probably dozens of these sort of mini deals that are littered in the field between Amazon, Microsoft, Google, other tech companies, and sort of the old oil giants of yesteryear. Total, Exxon, Chevron. And these unions are coming at a time when climate change is better understood than ever before. The urgency of climbing carbon emissions is is better understood than ever before. And Google, Microsoft, some of these CEOs are on the record saying we’ve got to do what we can to solve the climate crisis, and we’re here to help. To paraphrase the general sort of attitude that’s conveyed, Bill Gates, a notorious climate advocate, going around to Davos and making talks and speeches about the importance of solving climate change. And yet these companies are working to accelerate the production of fossil fuels right now in 2019. They started doing it in a big way in 2018.

So the ramifications of this are are quite severe. This is a time when we need to be putting all the resources possible towards drawing down emissions, finding ways to leave oil on the ground, to create clean energy, to do the opposite of what these guys are doing right now.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Now, you mentioned the case of Bill Gates. Let’s listen to one of the many instances in which he has talked about the urgency of the climate crisis.

BILL GATES: Without substantial change, getting the greenhouse gas emissions down, we are on a path to large increases in the planet’s temperature.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So there we have Bill Gates, one of the titans of the tech sector, talking yet again about the urgency of a climate crisis. Brian, I want to flesh out with you a little bit about the implications of all of this. It sounds as though this mingling of of high technology and the fossil fuel sector has a potential to do a number of things that has the potential to make oil and gas exploration more effective. It has the potential to decrease the cost of the extraction and exploration process, making fossil fuels extraction and consumption more profitable for these companies. Is that the conclusion that you’ve come to in examining the nature and extent of the cooperation between Big Tech and Big Oil?

BRIAN MERCHANT: Yeah, that pretty much sums up some of the more onerous implications of what’s going on here. So for example–well, you know, Microsoft and Exxon’s partnership is all about optimizing systems so that we can get even more oil out of, you know, a prominent well in the Permian Basin. A lot of oil already flows out of there, but production efficiency had been lowering. And you know, what these tech companies are doing are helping the oil companies pull more oil out of the ground that perhaps was thought previously unrecoverable. So we’re finding new ways to get more oil out of the ground. And in the case of Google’s partnerships with both Anadarko and Total, the French oil giant, they are using AI to optimize the process of exploration. So they’re going to be able to find new wells, new sources of oil, that we didn’t know existed, again that the science says needs to stay in the ground if we hope to preserve a stable climate. And they’re unleashing these tools as we speak.

The other things that they’re doing is Google is assisting sort of old school oil and energy firms in Houston to compete with clean energy ventures, giving them access to big data services, giving them access to sophisticated, high-tech tools to compete with clean energy startups. So in some cases they’re actually not only sort of accelerating the drive to extract and burn fossil fuels, they’re actually helping the companies doing that to compete and put out of business the clean tech startups that are hoping to move us towards a cleaner, lower emissions means of energy production. So that sort of constellation of projects is sort of–it sort of runs the gamut from extraction to exploration to competing with extant or aspiring, rather, clean energy companies.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: You talk a fair bit about Google and Microsoft. Amazon is another example that is front and center in your reporting. What are some of the key projects they’re involved in? And also what do you make of the fact that CEO Jeff Bezos of Amazon also happens to be the owner of the Washington Post? Do you have a concern–should we have a concern that this publication of record for those inside the Beltway will now have an incentive to treat the oil and gas industry with kid gloves?

BRIAN MERCHANT: Yeah, so Amazon is interesting. Amazon has been one of the largest web services providers across the board for many, many years. AWS, which you mentioned, the Amazon Web Services, is one of the largest hosting services on the Internet period. They they allow a vast, vast amount of the Internet infrastructure to run. So they do hosting services, they do big data services. And they’re sort of offering this sort of blanket pitch to the energy industry where, you know, they are sort of opening their arms to anyone, any company, big and small, to come and make use of these things. They’re doing the same things that I outlined earlier. They’re going to help well operators, sort of squeeze more oil out of the ground. They’re going to try to network the rigs so that they’re pumping more efficiently and aware of conditions on the ground better so that they can get more oil out of the ground.

As for Jeff Bezos and the Washington Post, he also is kind of obsessed with his space company and getting off planet Earth, which sort of has sort of an ill portent associated with it. But I think for the time being, anyway, we don’t need to be too worried about the the Post and its climate coverage suffering. They have a pretty great climate desk. I know a lot of the reporters there who do really good work. And I know Chris Mooney, who has run the climate and energy beat there for a while. I believe he’s still there. I think they still do strong work. I think you’re going to see more misinformation from other places that you would assume would have–you know, we really are going to worry more about Fox News and the Wall Street Journal and things like that kind of talking up the money that is to be gained by these deals. And you know, Wall Street Journal has covered Google’s dalliance with the oil industry with starry eyes. So I think the bigger threat is looking at sort of the reporting of these business deals uncritically. You know, given what we know now, that any move toward accelerating the extraction of fossil fuels at this moment should be treated skeptically at the very least, and if not, outright with hostility.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So thus far we’ve been talking about the climate implications of all of this, which are obviously extremely important. But we should also, I think, touch upon the implications for labor. You know, up here in Canada–I’m sure this has been the case the United States. But you will often hear both the Conservative and Liberal governments, who have ruled this country throughout the post-World War II period, justifying their pro-big oil policies by reference to a number of jobs being created by the industry. If these trends accelerate and become entrenched in the industry of automation, what can we expect to happen to, you know, job availability in the sector?

BRIAN MERCHANT: Yeah, that’s a great point and a great question. That’s true here, as well. You always hear that, well, oil, you know, it’s a great provider of high-paying jobs, and to some extent it has been true. You know, it’s hazardous work, working on the rigs, and you get paid fairly well to do it.

But the fact is, a lot of these automation programs are, if not actually replacing the jobs that these people are doing in the field, but they’re being used as justification to winnow the crews doing the work. As you’ll often see in automation, it’s rarely a clean one-to-one this robot is going to do this job. It’s more sort of a corporate mentality that says we are implementing automation, therefore we can justify hiring fewer people, letting more people go. And so I think what we’re going to see is fewer people in the field doing the same amount of work being overburdened with automated systems that don’t always work the way they’re intended to. And I think we’re actually also going to see the possibility of an increased accident and spill rate as a result of this trend. If you look at the jobs numbers just over the last year or two, all these companies that say they’re implementing automation, you do start to see it leveling off and slowly sort of declining in some areas.

So my guess is that, just as in many other industries, the automation logic will be used to reduce workforces even when the industry is not quite ready for that to happen, and there’s going to be a wide array of problems from increased unemployment to increased hazards in the field.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, we’ve been speaking to journalist and analyst Brian Merchant about some excellent reporting he’s done in regard to the merger of high technology and Big Oil. Thank you very much for joining us today, Brian.

BRIAN MERCHANT: Thanks so much for having me. Cheers.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And this is Dimitri Lascaris, reporting for The Real News Network.