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Google Greenwashes a Dirty Partnership with Saudi Aramco

Oct 21, 2023Oct 21, 2023

Google wants you to think that its work for Saudi Arabia will help save the planet.

Like many other modern American corporations, Google professes a deep commitment to protecting the environment and combating climate change from the very top: In a September 2020 blog post, CEO Sundar Pichai nodded to a “carbon-free future” and outlined a plan to tackle the company’s own emissions with great urgency.

“The science is clear: The world must act now if we’re going to avert the worst consequences of climate change,” Pichai wrote, and that meant phasing out Google’s use of fossil fuels in favor of clean, renewable power.

Two months later, Google announced it was partnering with Saudi Aramco. The internet giant maintains that the joint venture with Aramco — one of human history’s most prolific producers of oil and gas — is entirely green, but critics question whether it’s possible to work for a fossil fuel powerhouse without being complicit in the very dirty business of fossil fuels.

Google went into PR cleanup mode following the announcement, dispatching Thomas Kurian, head of the highly lucrative cloud-computing division, to deny allegations of climate hypocrisy. Yes, Google works with Big Oil, Kurian told Bloomberg TV’s Emily Chang, “but to the environmentally clean or green parts of these companies.” He added, “We have said that again and again that we don’t work with the oil and gas division within Aramco.”

Within months of Kurian’s denial, Aramco was using Google Cloud to transport methane gas more efficiently. When burned as fuel, methane is a leading source of carbon emissions.

This past November, Google Cloud hosted an “emissions hackathon” at the offices of Schlumberger, a Houston oil field services company. The winning team was none other than six Aramco oil and gas data scientists who’d devised a method of using Google Cloud’s machine learning features to detect and repair leaks in methane gas pipelines.

Google spokesperson Ted Ladd stood by the Aramco partnership in a statement to The Intercept, defending the collaboration as a means of helping Aramco “protect the environment.” The claim cuts to the heart of an ongoing debate among climate advocates and policymakers, in the halls of power and boardrooms alike: Can fossil fuel use be made meaningfully cleaner through technology, or does so-called decarbonization only “greenwash” the irredeemable pursuit of fossil fuels that must be cast aside to preserve life on Earth?

Whatever the Google-Aramco project offers in terms of environmental protection, this much is clear: The joint venture will be lucrative, bringing Google’s sophisticated cloud computing services to Saudi Arabia, an estimated $10 billion market, through the construction of a vast data center in Dammam — the very place where Saudi oil was first discovered in 1938 and where it continues to be pumped out by Aramco today.

The notion that a company of Google’s immense influence can work with a world historical exporter of hydrocarbon fuels while championing a “carbon-free future” is controversial.

Some observers of such deals say that if Google is making money helping a firm like Aramco even slightly reduce its emissions, society stands to benefit. “The sooner the world ditches gas and goes 100% renewable, the better it is for the environment and public health, but the transition won’t happen overnight,” Johanna Neumann, a senior director with renewable energy advocacy group Environment America, told The Intercept. “In the immediate term, oil and gas companies need to be held accountable for their methane pollution and the sooner they find and seal methane leaks, the better.”

Others are less hopeful. “These efforts certainly sound like they are driven by the bottom-line and not the desire to align businesses with carbon free investments,” said Gregory Trencher, a professor of environmental studies at Kyoto University. “Not touching fossil fuels in any shape or form is generally expected by many divestment players, so helping lower the carbon intensity of transport does not come across as a very impactful action.” Still, he added that “methane leaks in existing infrastructure are very large source of anthropogenic methane emissions. So this is a difficult debate.”

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Google’s claims to be helping Aramco decarbonize are complicated by the fact the Saudi-owned company has no apparent interest in doing so. Climate scientists routinely criticize Aramco’s green energy rhetoric as little more than talk, a PR smoke screen obscuring the firm’s role in perpetuating climate change — a role that’s made Aramco a $6.7 trillion company.

A recent New York Times investigation into Aramco found the firm’s eco-friendly initiatives are only part of a broader strategy to keep the planet addicted to Saudi fossil fuels for decades to come. The Times report noted that by reducing peripheral emissions, like methane leaks, Aramco gains the credibility needed to publicly pledge it will itself stop emitting greenhouse gases by 2050. All the while, the theory goes, the massive emissions caused by the continued global consumption of its chief products — oil and gas — will be ignored. “People would like us to give up on investment in hydrocarbons. But no,” Aramco CEO Amin Nasser told the Times.

Aramco even appears to be accelerating its oil and gas work, not moving away from it. According to a 2022 report by Oil Change International, Saudi Aramco greenlighted more new gas and oil projects than any other energy company last year; it is on track to rank No. 3 in the world in expanding its oil and gas operations through 2025.

While Google Cloud software may do what Kurian, the head of the division, says and help Aramco leak less methane into the atmosphere, it could also be helping the company push back on the global scientific consensus that fuel pipelines need to be ditched, not patched, to avoid a climate catastrophe.

“Kurian’s statement that his team is ‘helping oil and gas companies decarbonize in a variety of ways’ is concerning on two levels,” Collin Rees, a senior campaigner with anti-fossil fuel group Oil Change International, told The Intercept. “First, if so they’re pretty bad at their jobs — because we’ve seen almost no meaningful decarbonization in the sector — and second, it implies a continued existence for the sector or an ‘acceptable’ level of emissions, when we know that level must be near-zero.”

Working on ostensibly “green” projects for an oil giant like Aramco allows the company to pretend there is such a thing as eco-friendly fossil fuel, added Kelly Trout, research co-director at Oil Change International. While Google might help Aramco plug leaks, they’re also helping Aramco obscure its role in climate destruction. “The danger of what Google is doing lies in the company misleading the public that technology can render oil and gas ‘safe’ for the climate when only phasing it out can do that,” Trout said.

In other words, Google may be making Aramco’s operations more sustainable in terms of withstanding public relations pressure, not emissions.

There are further signs Google’s joint cloud venture is broadly courting the oil and gas sector; for one, they say it themselves. Google Cloud is sold to the Saudi market via CNTXT, a regional middleman Aramco co-founded with a Norwegian software company that works largely with oil and gas firms. CNTXT’s website directly advertises “cloud-driven digital transformation solutions for Public and Private Sectors and industrial digital transformation solutions asset-heavy industries including: Oil And Gas.”

In his statement to The Intercept, Ladd, the Google spokesperson, defended the entirety of the company’s work for Aramco, including the pipeline project. “This is entirely consistent with the type of work Google Cloud does with energy companies — in this case, helping them track emissions and gas leaks to protect the environment,” Ladd said. “We are not doing work in the exploration and production business with energy firms.”

This is a purported change from Google’s previous business strategy of engaging directly with the extraction portion of the chain. A landmark 2020 Greenpeace investigation accused Google of “helping Big Oil profit from climate destruction,” pointing to the company’s open courtship of upstream business. Prior to 2019, a now-deleted section of Google’s website touted a variety of ways in which the company had helped oil firms pump more oil, like Chevron using “Google’s AutoML Vision Al tools to parse Chevron’s vast data sets and revisit potential subsurface deposits that were previously passed over due to inconclusive or hard to parse data.”

Following the Greenpeace report, Google claimed it will no longer build custom artificial intelligence tools to aid drilling and pumping. The company remains, however, listed as a current member of the Open Subsurface Data Universe, a consortium of oil and tech companies that collaborate using data to improve oil and gas extraction. As of 2020, Google maintained a corporate email address specifically to field requests from consortium members, according to the OSDU’s official newsletter, “In The Pipeline.”

Google’s defense is based on drawing a careful distinction between so-called upstream processes — pumping of oil and gas out of the ground — and mid- or downstream work, where oil and gas are moved down the supply chain, refined, sold, and eventually burned as fuel. Just a month after the emissions hackathon in Houston, CNTXT CEO Abdullah Jarwan pitched Google Cloud at the Aramco 2022 Downstream Technology & Digital Excellence Awards, according to a LinkedIn post.

Google’s contention that helping only to transport fossil fuels keeps their hands clean from the act of pumping them is a fallacy, according to Josh Eisenfeld of the environmental advocacy group Earthworks. After all, every ounce of methane gas that Google might spare from leaking into the atmosphere is still destined to be burned for fuel.

“Anything that looks at a specific part of the production supply chain without looking at whole chain is perpetuating this disconnect that allows the chain to look cleaner than it is,” Eisenfeld told The Intercept in an interview. “It’s like saying we don’t support the sale of tobacco but helping the transportation of it. You’re still helping that industry look better and exist longer than it should.”

Greenpeace campaigner Xueying Wu agreed, telling The Intercept that “Google’s collaboration with Aramco works against the company’s climate commitments,” and that “it remains unclear how this effort would be separate from Aramco’s oil and gas business. It’s like eating organic food at home while collecting dividends from a pesticide business – there is a contradiction that is impossible to ignore.”

There are other indications that Google’s refusal to aid the upstream supply chain isn’t quite ironclad. According to a LinkedIn post by Kera Gautreau, a senior director with a Houston-based oil consortium that helped judge the emissions hackathon, the involved “teams utilized BlueSky Resources, LLC datasets and Google’s geospatial analytics and machine learning pipelines to solve big decarbonization challenges in upstream oil and gas.”

In late November 2022, CNTXT hosted an informational event for “Aramco Affiliates” with the stated goal of “keeping our heads in the cloud by adopting Google Cloud.” Despite Kurian’s claims that his cloud division wouldn’t do business with the upstream “exploration and production” side of Aramco, the people doing that work appear to have been attendance. The very first comment on CNTXT’s LinkedIn post (“The event was very informative”) is from Mazhar Saeed Siddiqui, whose profile lists him as an exploration system specialist at Saudi Aramco. Also in attendance was Asem Radhwi, who, according to his LinkedIn profile, spent 16 years as a petroleum engineering systems analyst at Aramco.

Part of Kurian’s attempt to distance Google from images of blackened oil fields relied on his claim that while they were doing business with Aramco, it wasn’t the part trashing the planet. “We work with Aramco system integration division, not with the oil and gas division,” he told Bloomberg. “We have said that again and again that we don’t work with the oil and gas division within Aramco.” It’s an odd claim, muddled by the fact that there’s no evidence an Aramco system integration division has ever existed. The term appears nowhere on the company’s website, nor has it ever been mentioned in its press releases.

When asked for specific information about this division, Ladd, the Google spokesperson, told The Intercept, “Thomas was referring to a division within Saudi Aramco.” Ladd did not point to anything specific. Aramco’s media relations office, through an unnamed spokesperson, provided only a link to the company’s “digital transformation” webpage, which gives a loose overview of how the company uses various technologies to aid its oil and gas business. To the extent Aramco has any business operations whatsoever outside of directly pumping, transporting, and selling fossil fuels, they appear to be almost entirely technologies designed to aid the pumping, transporting, and selling of fossil fuels, such as developing corrosion-resistant pipeline materials.

In its original announcement of the joint venture, Aramco noted the deal was struck “between Saudi Aramco Development Company, a subsidiary of Aramco, and Google Cloud.” Even if this distinction were meaningful, it doesn’t help Kurian’s case. When the European Commission granted its approval for Cognite, the Norwegian software firm that co-founded CNTXT, to take part in the Saudi cloud deal, it described the Saudi Aramco Development Company as “engaged in the exploration, production and marketing of crude oil and in the production and marketing of refined products and petrochemicals.”

Google’s Aramco justifications require thinking of the energy firm as something other than what it is: a machine engineered to extract, refine, and sell hydrocarbon fuels around the world. Polishing up a portion of this machine may make it seem cleaner, environmentalists argue, but obscures the contraption’s entire purpose.

While it may be hard to walk away from billions of petrodollars in missed cloud services revenue, advocates like Earthworks’s Eisenfeld say there can be no compromise when it comes to averting worst-case climate disaster. “It’s hard to make the argument any oil and gas company can be part of the solution,” he said.

The fundamental business of an entity like Aramco, Eisenfeld explained, is incompatible with the scientific climate consensus. If Aramco wants to provide a “carbon-free future” for the planet of the kind Google is attempting internally, it will have to dismantle its pipelines, not simply keep them from leaking.

“If you’re talking about decarbonizing and not talking about decommissioning, you’re saying, ‘I’m going to drive the climate off a cliff,’” Eisenfeld said.

As Google CFO Ruth Porat put it in 2019, “It should be the goal of every business to protect our planet.”

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