Amazon defends partnerships with oil industry as Washington governor seeks to rein it in

Environmental activists protest outside Amazon’s annual meeting in May 2019. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Amazon’s sustainability chief defended the company’s partnerships with fossil fuel companies Thursday during an Axios virtual event with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

Both Inslee and Amazon’s head of worldwide sustainability, Kara Hurst, said that the oil and gas sector could be a partner in the quest to decarbonize the economy, though the governor called on lawmakers to force the industry’s hand.

Axios hosted the “economics of renewable energy” event at a moment when the debate over climate change is front of mind for many Americans facing wildfires and tropical storms.

Amazon has unveiled sweeping new sustainability policies over the last few years, but environmentalists — including the internal group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice — are demanding the company sever ties with the fossil fuel industry.

Amazon Web Services, the company’s cloud arm, actively pursues oil industry customers with technology promising to improve the efficiency of oil discovery and extraction. The pitch won over European oil giant BP, which said last year it will go “all in” on AWS, migrating all of its data to Amazon’s cloud.

Following backlash from employee activists and environmental groups, Amazon recently started claiming the partnerships will help fossil fuel companies shift to renewable energy.

“I believe it’s absolutely necessary to work with those types of industries to create transformation,” Hurst said during the Axios event.

Amazon is working with sustainability partners to determine, “what types of technological transformation is going to be needed to deliver on something like the Climate Pledge, deliver decarbonization in the next 20 years,” Hurst said. “We can’t leave any industry behind. We need to drive hard at decarbonization.”

Axios’ Amy Harder (left) and Amazon sustainability lead Kara Hust discuss renewable energy during a virtual event.

Amazon’s Climate Pledge, unveiled in 2019, is a commitment to become net carbon neutral by 2040, among other sustainability goals. Amazon is recruiting other companies to make the same commitment and bought the naming rights to Seattle’s new basketball and hockey stadium to advance that effort. The Climate Pledge Arena will be the first stadium in the world to be certified as “net zero carbon” Amazon says.

A rendering of Amazon’s ‘Climate Pledge Arena’ under construction in Seattle.

During the virtual event, Inslee agreed that oil and gas companies could be part of the shift to renewable energy needed to mitigate the worst consequences of climate change. But he warned against expecting the industry to change on its own, without pressure from the public sector.

“Any company can get in the clean energy business and they could,” Inslee said. “There’s been some modest steps in a couple of these companies, which are welcome, but we need policies to incentivize them and require them to go in that direction … if we’re going to have the change that we need, at the pace that we need, public policy has to be involved.”

Inslee also urged voters to elect Joe Biden to the presidency in November, claiming a second term for Donald Trump would be disastrous for the environment.

“He has tried to throw up a roadblock against any development in renewable energies,” Inslee said. “He’s got an allergy to good ideas, an infatuation with deception. He’s downplayed climate change just like he’s downplayed COVID.”

Shortly before the event Thursday, Amazon unveiled the first five companies selected to receive investments from its Climate Pledge Fund, a $2 billion initiative revealed in June to support innovations that will help the Seattle-based cloud computing and online shopping behemoth reduce its carbon emissions. The initiative includes a commitment to purchase 100,000 electric vans from Rivian to reduce the carbon footprint of Amazon’s delivery operation.

Despite sustainability investments in recent years, Amazon receives some of the harshest criticism for its partnerships with oil companies. But Amazon is hardly an outlier in the tech industry. Microsoft and Google are both actively courting the fossil fuel industry as the three companies compete aggressively for cloud customers. While the shift to renewable energy may be part of the equation, all three companies promise to improve the efficiency of fossil fuel extraction and production.

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