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Google plans to stop making A.I. tools for oil and gas firms

Oil production in Azerbaijan

Google has pledged to stop building customized artificial intelligence (AI) tools that help oil and gas firms to extract fossil fuels worldwide. 

The story was reported by Medium's tech publication, OneZero, following an interview with The Cube that was published on YouTube.  

A Greenpeace report on Tuesday highlighted how Google, Microsoft, and Amazon use AI and warehouse servers to help the likes of Shell, BP, and ExxonMobil to locate and retrieve oil and gas deposits from the earth. 

A Google spokesperson confirmed to CNBC that the company "will not ... build custom AI/ML algorithms to facilitate upstream extraction in the oil and gas industry." 

Google Cloud took approximately $65 million from oil and gas companies in 2019, the spokesperson said, adding that it accounts for less than 1% of total Google Cloud revenues. Given Google Cloud's relatively small slice of the oil and gas market, it wasn't a huge stretch for the company to vow not to compete on AI/ML. 

In total, the oil and gas sector is expected to spend $1.3 billion on cloud computing in 2020, according to data from HG Insights. "Google Cloud is only a small percentage of this aggregate spend," said the Google spokesperson.

Greenpeace applauded Google's decision. "While Google still has legacy contracts with oil and gas firms that we hope they will terminate, we welcome Google's move to no longer create custom solutions for upstream oil and gas extraction," said Elizabeth Jardim, senior corporate campaigner for Greenpeace USA. 

"We hope Microsoft and Amazon will quickly follow with commitments to end AI partnerships with oil and gas firms, as these contracts contradict their stated climate goals and accelerate the climate crisis."

Google has a reputation for being one of the greenest large tech firms in the world. Unlike other tech giants, it has been carbon neutral since 2007 by using strategies like buying renewable energy to match its use of non-renewable energy. 

Amazon has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2040, while Microsoft has pledged to be carbon negative by 2030. 

"Despite the biggest cloud companies' commitments to address climate change, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon all have connections to some of the world's dirtiest oil companies for the explicit purpose of getting more oil and gas out of the ground and onto the market faster and cheaper," the Greenpeace report reads. 

The Greenpeace report — titled "How Tech Companies are Helping Big Oil Profit from Climate Destruction" — calls out Microsoft as the tech giant with the most oil and gas contracts, claiming that it is "offering AI capabilities in all phases of oil production."

Microsoft responded to the report in a blog post that said it was encouraged by the growing number of energy sector commitments to transitioning to cleaner energy and lowering carbon emissions. 

"We agree that the world confronts an urgent carbon problem and we all must do more and move faster to reach a net zero-carbon future," Microsoft wrote in the post.

"The reality is that the world's energy currently comes from fossil fuels and, as standards of living around the world improve, the world will require even more energy. That makes realizing a zero-carbon future one of the most complex transitions in human history."

Meanwhile, Amazon has contracts largely in the mid and downstream phases of oil production, the report said, adding that Amazon focuses on pipelines, shipping, and storage for oil and gas companies. 

"The Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud is the largest in the world, the virtual home to millions of websites, and is now being used by oil and gas firms to get oil to market more efficiently," Greenpeace said.

"Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently stepped up his company's ambition on climate, announcing the Climate Pledge and his $10 billion Earth Fund. These efforts unfortunately ignore Amazon's ongoing support of the fossil fuel sector with AI technologies."

Amazon declined to comment but it pointed to a website that states Amazon believes the energy industry should have access to the same technologies as other industries.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Google's pledge came ahead of the release of the report from Greenpeace.