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Amazon, despite climate pledge, fought to kill emissions bill in Oregon

A man waits to cross the street near an Amazon Fresh store in Crystal City in Arlington, Virginia on March 31, 2023.ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

Amazon has branded itself as a climate crusader, touting its commitment to renewable energy and sustainable practices. But in Oregon, it helped quietly quash a climate bill that would have regulated its data centers.

The bill would have set a 100 percent carbon emissions reduction deadline of 2040 for high energy users. Its goal was to rein in industries with outsize carbon footprints, like cryptocurrency mines and data centers, of which Amazon is planning three more in the state that would be powered by fossil fuels.

Though the bill would have matched the timeline of Amazon's own "Climate Pledge," which promises net-zero carbon emissions by 2040, the company helped kill it, said Oregon state Rep. Pam Marsh.

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"Amazon's representatives were in the Capitol lobbying against the bill from the very first moment of discussion," said Marsh, chair of the Oregon House climate committee and sponsor of the bill, HB2816. Though Amazon did not testify publicly, Marsh said the company's lobbyists helped organize the opposition and "successfully nurtured fear that our energy requirements would drive away the development of data centers."

"No one wants that," Marsh continued, "but we do want them to use energy in a responsible, sustainable manner."

In addition to the Climate Pledge, Amazon has set a goal of moving entirely to renewable energy by 2025; the company has spent millions on solar and wind energy projects and is the largest private purchaser of clean energy. From its $2 billion climate fund to the Climate Pledge, Amazon has invested heavily in creating the perception that it's an environmental leader.

But its dealings in Oregon show that, behind the scenes, it wants to call the shots on how that transition happens.

Amazon spokesperson David Ward said in a statement that "a number of organizations, including Amazon, oppose HB2816 because the bill does not address the build-out of electric infrastructure that is needed to bring more clean energy to the grid."

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"Building new renewable projects requires infrastructure investments in the grid and today there are hurdles in key areas like permitting and interconnection," he continued. "Accelerating energy infrastructure permitting and interconnections for renewables like solar and wind would have a greater impact on reducing emissions, bringing more clean energy to the grid, and helping achieve our goal of accessing more clean energy in Oregon."

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.

Between the trucks, planes and vans that deliver packages to doorsteps all over the world to the enormous network of data centers powering the cloud-computing business that makes it all possible, Amazon is a massive energy consumer. And it's still growing: Last year, its carbon emissions increased at a higher rate than it ever previously reported.

Amazon has said it will be fully powered by renewable energy in just two years. But while the company is developing solar and wind farms around the world that will generate 15.7 gigawatts of energy - on par with some utilities - critics like the NewClimate Institute have said its plan for reducing emissions isn't strong enough.

The data centers that power Amazon Web Services, the cloud-computing business that serves as the company's economic engine, are a major contributor to the problem. The data center industry is a huge energy consumer - the power it takes to run the largest data centers is equivalent to 80,000 residential homes, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

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Despite Amazon's stated goal of using only renewable energy, it remains dependent on fossil fuels. In Virginia, another major region for AWS, the company has been criticized for contributing to the expanded use of fracked natural gas. Data center demands in Virginia have also raised concerns about straining the grid, leading officials to consider the use of diesel generators.

Amazon has said that its emissions rose because of increased customer demand, and that its carbon intensity - or how much carbon it releases per dollar of sales - fell by 1.9% in 2021.

Oregon has long been considered an attractive state to build data centers, in part because of tax incentives, but also because of access to cheap water and clean energy. But the incredible growth of the data center industry in the state means demand for renewable energy has outpaced supply.

For example, plans have been in the works to build an aluminum factory using clean energy there, but the federally operated Bonneville Power Administration doesn't have enough capacity for it, The Washington Post reported.

Currently, Amazon's data centers in Oregon get power from the Umatilla Electric Cooperative, which is forced to buy dirty energy on the open market to keep up with local demands.

Other tech companies with data centers in Oregon are using fossil fuels, too, but firms like Apple and Facebook have signed clean-power deals to offset their emissions in the state. While Amazon has brokered many such deals around the world, it hasn't announced any in Oregon.

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Charley Daitch, Amazon Web Services director of energy and water, said Amazon's data centers in Oregon are powered by 95 percent renewable energy.

"In Oregon, we worked together with Umatilla Electric Cooperative (UEC) to create an innovative solution that safely and reliably powers our operations and keeps Amazon on a path to meeting 100% renewable energy by 2025," he said in a statement.

Efforts are underway to increase transmission capacity in Oregon, which would add more clean power to the grid, but that process could take years.

Amazon doesn't want to wait that long to expand its data capacity. So it is partnering with a California-based company called Bloom Energy. The company plans to use Bloom's fuel cells to power at least three data centers, the Oregonian first reported. The fuel cell technology, Bloom says, produces less emissions than traditional options and can be used with cleaner fuels like biogas (also known as renewable natural gas) and hydrogen.

But those options aren't available yet in Oregon, and in the meantime, Amazon plans to use natural gas to power the fuel cells. To do that, the company plans to access an interstate gas pipeline, which will require the construction of infrastructure and an increase in the pipeline's overall capacity.

Amazon said the data centers that would be powered by fuel cells make a up a small percentage of AWS's overall operation.

The goal of the Oregon bill targeting data centers and other high energy consumers was to curtail the use of fossil fuels in the state. It was supported by members of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, a group that organized an employee walkout in 2019 and successfully pressured the company to commit to clean-energy and emissions-reduction goals.

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"We are concerned that Amazon will again increase its emissions further by taking advantage of the opportunity to undermine Oregon's climate goals by powering Amazon's data centers using dirty energy," former Amazon employee and group member Sarah Tracy said at a March 20 hearing on the proposed legislation.

Amazon didn't testify against the bill in Oregon. But AWS is a member of the Technology Association of Oregon, which wrote an opposition letter to committee leaders.

"Oregon tech companies do not control the decisions that their energy utilities make," the letter reads. "They alone cannot change the structural barriers that prevent more clean energy from powering the grid. Yet this bill penalizes tech companies for decisions outside of their control."

Amazon said it wants to accelerate clean energy in Oregon. But Rep. Marsh said she is “increasingly skeptical of Amazon’s commitment to clean energy given their behavior on this.”