An organization I'm involved in has been examining its connections with fossil fuel. Like a lot of other organizations, it's committed to reach net zero. Like everyone else, it has an environmental footprint. It uses fossil-based energy for transport and heating and is starting to look at changing that.
It's also got a pension fund, which has investments in fossil fuel exploitation companies. When we kicked off a discussion on whether to cancel that investment, we learned some interesting things about how the oil companies are operating, and how best to treat them.
I think the data center industry could also learn from this, too.
Can we work with oil companies?
Decisions about pensions and investments get made centrally, but organizations are hierarchical. To get the discussion going, we had to start with local groups. And we noticed something interesting.
We were talking with individuals who are all doing their bit for the climate, one way or another. They understand global warming. As individuals, they want to help. But when we talked about big oil companies, the discussions tended to bog down.
Surely, we need oil, they said. We can't stop using it now, so we have to support these firms. In any case, they understand energy production, and they are investing in renewable sources. Surely we can trust them, and investing with them might actually help us all to make the transition.
Sadly, these comments are all based on misconceptions and illusions. The fact of the matter is that the oil companies are criminally obstructing our path to a sustainable future. Any gestures they make towards transition are just that - merely gestures, designed to keep our support.
When oil prices were low, during the pandemic, a renewable firm, NextEra Energy briefly displaced ExxonMobil as the most valuable energy company in the US - and oil companies made loud promises to invest in renewables.
Now oil prices are high again, they are investing heavily in oil again, backtracking on renewables, and looking for any loopholes in their earlier promises - or just rolling them back.
Even at the high water mark, in 2021, of oil companies preaching about renewables, their promises were still far short of what was needed to meet the Paris targets. Specifically, and this is very important, very few oil companies commit to reducing the Scope 3 emissions which come into their upstream and downstream supply chains.
This means that they are promising to make no emissions while they get oil and gas out of the ground. But then they close their eyes to the vastly more significant emissions those fuels create when they are burnt. Let's be clear - a Net Zero oil company that ignores what the oil actually does when burnt is not in any sense a Net Zero oil company.
Diluting their targets
Now, after a war has put oil prices up, renewable targets are being forgotten. In the last week, the largest oil companies have swerved away from previous environmental commitments and doubled down on expanding their production of fossil fuels. They have done this at a time when they are making record profits because they calculate then can get away with it.
Let's start with Shell. The company has a "goal" to be climate neutral by 2050 but is apparently lying about the actual efforts it is making towards that. Shell says it is investing 12 percent of its capital expenditure in a renewable and green energy division. While its low-carbon web pages talk about wind, solar, and hydrogen, the truth is that all but a tiny fraction of its green energy spending is going into fossil natural gas.
Shell CEO, Wael Sawan, told the media: “Our philosophy has been a real pivot toward energy transition investments - but we will make sure that those investments go into the areas where we can see line of sight toward attractive returns to be able to reward our shareholders.”
UK-based activists Global Witness found what this means. Just 1.5 percent of Shell's investment is going into actual renewables, while the vast majority is going into natural gas, a fuel which the fossil industry likes to label as "green". Natural gas gives out less carbon than coal, but it's not renewable and is itself, a very powerful greenhouse gas.
Global Witness has complained to the SEC about Shell's greenwashing of its business - we look forward to seeing the results of that.
As an aside, in our industry, AWS made the same claim about natural gas, when it decided to do to use fossil-powered fuel cells in Oregon. It was touted as a big step for the environment, but actually increased the cloud giant's emissions.
Meanwhile, BP (which had made promises two years ago on Scope 3 emissions) is actually been brazen enough to reduce its targets. This week, BP made record-breaking profits of $28 billion. And, while it has put $8 billion of this into "transition" investment (we wonder if that might include natural gas), it has also increased its oil and gas exploration and production plans by the same amount - $8 billion.
Increasing oil production goes against BP's commitments - so it's rolled those commitments back. Having promised to cut its oil and gas output by 35-40 percent by 2030, it has now adjusted that to only a 20-30 percent decrease in output. The company was previously planning to produce 1.5 million barrels a day of oil in 2030 - that target is now up to two million. CEO Bernard Looney told the FT this was the “right” amount for the company.
“The strategy that we have is to invest in today’s energy system," was Looney's excuse - ie let's invest in oil while prices are high. He followed up with a fatuous claim that this was a policy to "invest in accelerating the energy transition," saying: "We’re leaning into it.”
What company do you keep?
You don't need me to tell you why the oil companies are doing this. BP's Looney said this: "Let me be categorical. We will drive for strong returns in any business we go into. We cannot justify going after a low return. Our shareholders deserve to see us going after strong returns."
In other words, if your money is invested there, they are doing this for you.
Tech giants are more culpable than that. Microsoft, Amazon, and Google all have strong business links with Big Oil, set out starkly in a 2020 Greenpeace campaign. Oil in the Cloud. These days, the oil giants tuck the details away a bit, but their websites boast how their services can help the fossil giants to extract more oil, making difficult reserves easier to extract.
Oil exploration is a perfect market for AI tools, where huge profits just might be expedited if an AI tool could magically think of a better approach. So all three web giants have been touting their Big Data and AI tools to increase oil production - flying in the face of the IPCC's direction that we need to leave unexploited oil reserves in the ground
Even faced with industrial protests by its staff in 2019, Microsoft kept on working with Chevron and others.
Google announced it would stop selling specialized AI tools to fossil giants. But it is still taking millions of dollars from them, to place their ads prominently against environmental searches like "net-zero," and partnering with oil companies to open data centers.
Further down the food chain, we have more egregious examples of fake environmentalism, where a small group of companies claim to be green because their data centers run on oil-well flare gas. This makes an insignificant impact on the environmental destruction those oil wells cause, and yet it's enough to get them environmental awards. At the same time, it provides extra revenue for the fossil fuel companies.
Get out of oil
It's clear that oil companies have all the information they need to see that we must end the use of fossil fuels. But they are unable or unwilling to act on that. They are actively blocking the spread of real information and action to achieve net zero and failing to take effective action themselves.
Cloud companies also have access to all the information they need, and yet they continue to indulge in the environmental harm caused by an out-of-control industry, through a similar argument to Looney's. Their shareholders require them, apparently to pursue all profitable business, no matter the ethics.
I'm afraid there is one clear direction here. Don't believe what the oil industry says, Don't give it any money or support that you can avoid.
Get your cloud off oil - and get oil off your cloud.