Google, Microsoft and Amazon are signing agreements with several fossil fuel companies. Why are they interested in the oil business?
On Earth Day 2019, Google posted this video about the "urgency of radically addressing climate change in the next decade." This is Kate Brandt, she used to be Obama's chief sustainability officer. Now she works to make Google a global leader in "reducing or even eliminating our dependence on raw materials or fossil fuels."
Google's growing data centers need more energy every year. In 2012 just 34% of that power came from renewables. But by 2017, they got that up to 100 percent. They've also managed to lower their total energy use with some help from a branch of artificial intelligence called machine learning. A computer program takes in lots of data and trains itself to operate the centers as efficiently as possible. Here's energy use under human supervision, and when the AI is in charge. The more data the AI trains on, the better it gets at reducing energy use.
But here's the thing: This same technology can be used to automate lots of other tasks, like fossil fuel discovery and extraction. And while Google is using AI to increase the efficiency of its operation, it's also using it to try and get as much oil and gas out of the ground as possible. In 2018, Google hired Darryl Willis, a veteran of British Petroleum, to lead its new oil, gas, and energy division. Willis explained "our plan is to be the partner of choice for the energy industry." They've already signed a deal with Total, one of the world's biggest oil companies, to develop AI that will streamline oil and gas exploration and production.
Video By: Vox | YouTube Channel
And Google's not alone. Microsoft and Amazon are also teaming up with the fossil fuel industry. Big Tech has entered the oil business. On June 15, 1957, the citizens of Tulsa, Oklahoma buried a rather odd time capsule, a brand new Plymouth Belvedere. Sealed inside among commemorative plates, ash trays, t-shirts, and books that captured the spirit of the times, was a 16mm film reel. It showed a martian visiting the United States and learning that oil and competition made the nation prosper. Also included in the capsule were gasoline and motor oil. In 1957, it seemed like a very real possibility that these products wouldn't be around in 50 years when the Belvedere was scheduled to be disinterred. Newspapers around the country were reporting that America's oil production would soon fall off. And as that cartoon martian learned, discoveries of new reserves were rare. "Only one well in nine finds any oil at all. And only one in almost a thousand makes a major discovery."
Oil has always been really hard to find. America's first oil well was drilled in 1859 near a particularly greasy creek in Pennsylvania. It was obvious there was oil seeping up from the ground here, but it took Edwin Drake over a year and all his money to find a measly little pocket of black gold. Still, his discovery triggered an oil boom and a Pennsylvania paper was soon explaining that the substance could "illuminate, lubricate, make candles, and cure most diseases from which humanity suffers." Not all of that proved true, but 100 years later, petroleum had given the world "fabrics, toothbrushes, tires, insecticide, cosmetics, weed killers, a whole galaxy of things to make a better life on Earth." And of course, fuel.
The energy needs of the world have risen a lot since 1859. And from very early on there were fears that fossil fuels couldn't meet this demand. In 1909, some thought oil and gas would run out around 1937. In 1937, US oil supplies were supposed to disappear by 1952. And so on, and so on, as fossil fuels became more and more essential in every day life, predictions of a crash kept coming. But somehow, the oil kept flowing. "I couldn't imagine how this ever-increasing supply of oil was achieved. Until I found out that there's not just one but thousands of oil companies all competing with each other to discover and develop new sources of oil."
From the earliest days, competing companies invested in better technology to extract fossil fuels, better drills, better pumps, and they developed better techniques for finding new oil reserves, creating seismic vibrations to see underneath the ground, using satellite LIDAR to reveal hidden structures, detecting subtle changes in the Earth's gravity and magnetism. Thanks in part to these advances, by 2007, when a very rusty Belvedere was exhumed, global oil production was still on the rise. In the US, it did look like oil was finally petering out, until investment in new technology, fracking and horizontal wells in vast shale formations, brought it roaring back.
Today, once again, if we just rely on current reserves and current tech, oil production will start to falter, but if new technology lets us squeeze more out of the reserves we already have and find new sources of oil, we'll be able to meet the growing demand. It's just a matter of finding the next technological leap. Of course, there's a problem with using fossil fuels to meet the world's energy needs. Climate change.
Oil, gas and coal are a time capsule of a different sort, sealing ancient carbon deep below the Earth. When humans open that time capsule and burn those fossil fuels, carbon reenters the atmosphere as the greenhouse gas CO2. Since 1859, CO2 levels have shot up and so has the planet's temperature. If we keep going like this, if we burn all the fossil fuels we currently have access to, models suggest that the Earth could warm somewhere between 6.4 and 9.5 degrees. And so climate activists say there's only one thing to do. "Keep it in the ground. Keep it in the ground. Keep it in the ground. Keep it in the ground." That's easier chanted than done.
Currently, the world relies on fossil fuels for 85 percent of its energy needs. Keeping it in the ground will require a huge shift to renewables and lower energy use in general. And big tech companies have publicly rushed to be part of this effort. "Sustainability has been a core value since our founding." "There had been pockets of sustainability living within Amazon's business since the very beginning." "One of the problems we can help solve is energy consumption." "We can invent our way out of this problem." "Innovation is the key to solving this problem." "We can put artificial intelligence and digital technology to use to help our customers in every part of the economy become more sustainable themselves."
It turns out that same artificial intelligence technology is just what oil companies need to stay profitable. See the fossil fuel industry has amassed lots and lots of valuable data as they've mapped Earth's crust in search of reserves. Take this patch of ocean floor in the North Sea. In 1989, Dutch geologists painstakingly mapped the different rock layers using seismic scans. Researchers at IBM recently fed all that seismic data into a machine learning algorithm and after about 10 minutes of training, the AI was able to label the rock layers nearly as accurately as human experts. Another group at Georgia Tech used machine learning to quickly identify structures important to oil discovery.
You could imagine how an AI could train itself with all kinds of data to pinpoint the best places to drill. And once drilling begins, AI can streamline extraction to make it cheaper. That kind of efficiency can help the oil and gas industry compete with renewables and so it's no surprise that they spent an estimated 1.75 billion dollars on AI in 2018.
Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are competing for a piece of that pie. Google has signed agreements with several fossil fuel companies. Microsoft has teamed up with Exxon and Chevron, and just hired Daryl Willis away from Google. And Amazon, who already provides cloud services to BP and Shell is marketing its ability to accelerate and optimize exploration, drilling, and production of oil and gas.
While they talk up their commitment to sustainability, big tech is making sure the world can keep burning plenty of fossil fuel. "And if you have both of these things, any goal is possible. It's destination unlimited."