Employee activism and outside pressure have pushed big tech companies like Amazon and Microsoft into promising to slash their carbon emissions. But there's another thing these tech giants aren't cutting: Their growing business ties to the oil and gas industry.
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Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, like other tech executives, said last month that he sees no problem with his company providing tools to the oil and gas industry.
"No," Bezos said when asked if he was willing to stop working with Big Oil companies. "We're going to work hard for energy companies. And our view, we're going to work hard to make sure as they transition, they have the best tools possible. To ask oil and energy companies to do this transition with bad tools is not a good idea, and we won't do that."
Tech giants have been competing with one another to strike lucrative partnerships with ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, BP and other energy firms, in many cases supplying them not just with remote data storage but also artificial intelligence tools for pinpointing better drilling spots or speeding up refinery production.
The oil and gas industry is spending roughly $20 billion each year on cloud services, which accounts for about 10 percent of the total cloud market, according to Vivek Chidambaram, a managing director of Accenture’s energy consultancy.
Some experts say AI and cloud services could actually play a role in curbing emissions.
Denying cloud computing services to the oil and gas industry would do little to address the bigger problem of the world’s ongoing dependence on fossil fuels, said Aseem Prakash, director of the Center for Environmental Politics at the University of Washington.
"We would not want to collapse the fossil fuel industry," Prakash said. "We would want a soft landing."
In September, Bezos announced a corporate climate pledge to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement 10 years early. The announcement came one day before nearly 1,550 Amazon employees said they planned to walk out of the Seattle headquarters to protest the company's climate policies.
When Microsoft held an all-staff meeting in September, an employee asked CEO Satya Nadella if it was ethical for the company to be selling its cloud computing services to fossil fuel companies, according to two other Microsoft employees who described the exchange on condition they not be named. Such partnerships, the worker told Nadella, were accelerating the oil companies' greenhouse gas emissions.
Nadella sought to assuage employee concerns at the Sept. 12 meeting, first by reiterating Microsoft’s internal efforts on environmental sustainability, according to the workers, who asked for anonymity because they feared retaliation for speaking about an internal meeting. The employees said Nadella also defended Microsoft’s energy partners, pointing out their investments in researching and developing more sustainable energy production methods.
"There's no fossil fuel CEO who sits there and says, 'You know, I'm just gonna deny climate change,'" Nadella said, according to the employees' transcript of his remarks. "If anything, they're all saying, 'Let us have, in fact, the regulation, the pricing mechanisms that get us to this future.'"
Microsoft said in an emailed statement Tuesday that it is "focused on helping companies of all kinds become more efficient, including energy companies." It declined to comment on Nadella’s remarks, which were part of a regularly scheduled "all-hands" gathering in which the CEO welcomes questions on a range of topics.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.