Is Amazon’s oil & gas ambition a necessary evil?

Is Amazon’s oil & gas ambition a necessary evil?

A group of Amazon employees has protested the company’s sales to the Oil & Gas industry. Their petition calling for these sales to stop has caught widespread interest and support.

At the heart of their complaint are Amazon’s AI cloud services. These are being marketed to the industry to reduce operating costs, maximise yields from wells and overall improve profits. The charge being levied is by proactively marketing these services, Amazon is helping “Big Oil” trash the planet.

Oil is at the heart of society

Oil is a complex and often divisive topic. The debate sometimes doesn’t get further than pollution from cars or air travel. About 80 per cent of our oil is burnt, whether in cars or power stations and while these are becoming more efficient and better at filtering out pollutants, the fact remains it is wasteful and damaging. The remainder finds its way into roads, fertilisers, lubricants and plastics. 

Replacing oil in society isn’t just about buying electric cars, flying less or building more wind farms. Most government plans to replace petrol with EVs don’t take full effect for more than two decades, and will still leave a long tail of fossil using vehicles on our roads. Biofuels being developed for aviation require large amounts of crops, which compete with their use as food. While the single used plastic bag has been vilified, paper and cotton alternatives have been shown to have higher carbon footprints. Addressing one environmental risk all too often exposes another.

For the time being at least we are stuck with sucking dead dinosaurs out of the ground.

A dirty business that needs cleaning up

No one can claim oil is anything but a dirty business and pollution is inevitable. Fortunately, high profile disasters like the Exxon Valdez or Deepwater Horizon are few and far between, but this doesn’t tell the whole story. As damaging are the constant low level spills and leaks that affect oceans and upset fragile ecosystems. The Niger Delta is one of the most polluted places on earth, not from a single Exxon Valdez scale spill, but hundreds of smaller leaks that have dumped tens of millions of litres of oil over many years.

While we move away from oil, we should do everything we can to limit its impact. Technology can model oil wells so they can be built in ways that minimise environmental damage. It can be used to devise ways to extract more oil from a single well, reducing the need to build more. Problems in extraction and processing can be found faster with smart monitoring, reducing leaks and pollution.

There will be companies that exploit the environment with this technology. They will deliberately set out to maximise profits without significant regard for the environment. These companies must be held to account more effectively than they are at present. With access to AI that can identify and mitigate their pollution risks, they will have no place to hide from regulators, customers or investors.

Right idea, wrong target?

The protest is right to highlight how Amazon’s AI could be used to exploit the environment. However, AI also has the potential to do significant good in limiting the impact from extraction. While we depend on oil, anything that can reduce the negative effects of this necessary evil must surely be welcome.

Image courtesy of Lindsey G and used under Creative Commons.

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