SAN ANTONIO, Texas — As the energy industry races to advance the energy transition, professionals feel the need to educate the public on the realities—both capabilities and inadequacies—of today’s energy system.
Panelists at the opening session of the Society of Petroleum Engineers’ (SPE) Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition on Oct. 16 said oil and gas will continue to play a part in the energy mix of the future as new products like hydrogen come into play.
Aaron Ketter, vice president for the Midcontinent and South Texas business unit at Devon Energy Corp., said the expectation is that demand for energy will only grow in the future because of a rising population and the expectation of economic growth. Throughout his own 25-year career, he said, demand has grown nearly every year, with notable exceptions including the financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We should have conviction around energy demand growing and the necessity of it for an improving planet,” he said, with the expectation that “oil and gas will play a part of that future.”
And, he said, the change in the industry will be more of an addition rather than a transition.
“We usually talk about an energy addition, not transition, because every time we need more energy, we've added it, but we rarely transition away from an energy source,” Ketter said.
But bringing new sources of energy, including hydrogen, into the mix is a costly and lengthy process.
Andrew Drummond, executive vice president for exploration and development at Woodside Energy, compared the current state of hydrogen to the conversations that used to occur around LNG.
“We’re talking about establishing a brand new value chain, and one that actually requires—in the case of hydrogen—a tremendous amount of energy as an input to that process,” he said.
The Biden administration recently committed $7 billion for hydrogen hubs, but a lot needs to happen before hydrogen contributes appreciably to the energy mix.
For instance, how hydrogen is transported, what its end uses are and how much people are willing to pay will all need to be figured out, he said.
“It's a fascinating space, one that I think will take time, but we've been here before,” Drummond said. “It's very analogous to the element creation of what is now in the LNG industry.”
Medhat Kamal, the 2023 SPE president and retiree from Chevron, said the industry has long worked to reduce emissions, but that efforts are more frequently the topic of discussion.
“The technology is advancing, we are finding different ways to efficiently do that,” he said.
Now, rather than having to physically monitor emissions at sites, it’s possible to use tech to monitor from afar.
“We're actually employing additional things like drones, like planes, using the technology of remote sensing,” he said. “We are starting to actually use more technology to do that.”
Ketter said the technology that the industry is using should be shown off to the public so they understand the steps the industry is taking to provide energy in an environmentally friendly way. Devon has brought local and national politicians, members of regulatory organizations and representatives from other operators to a Devon site in western Oklahoma with about 10 different emission monitoring devices.
“Don't underestimate the value of bringing somebody to your location and giving them the opportunity to see what you do and ask questions, because when they ask one question, you provide an answer, it opens up a couple more,” he said.
Houston, we have a reputation problem
One of the problems facing the industry is its negative image, and that affects attracting new talent to enter the hydrocarbon workforce.
Kamal said people are “being hit with” the negative image retained by the oil and gas industry “all the time” and suggested it’s time to find a better way to communicate.
“We as engineers or scientists, geoscientists, the way we understand stuff is through data and points and things like that. And maybe not everybody can actually relate to that. Maybe we need to start working with a professional organization that can actually help to produce the information about us in a way that will actually resonate with more people,” he said.
Perhaps that starts with helping people realize just how much the industry has changed, and how much technology is actually involved in operations, Ketter said.
“Maybe we held onto an image that we should have shook off a little earlier and that image, just kind of think of a dirty rig, big wrenches. It’s tough, it’s remote—and that can't be further from the truth,” he said. “We're using power down to run our rigs. It's quiet. It's somebody sitting there with joysticks. Engineers are now looking at the field from a centralized tower many miles away and processing a lot of data. So I think if we're guilty of anything, we may be held onto an image longer than we should have. Particularly if we wanted to convince people that this is a technology industry. And I think our biggest advocates are admittedly those that are graduating now or just a couple of years out.”
Drummond argued for keeping emotion out of the conversation about the future of energy.
“Can we actually have a debate without losing tempers and actually debate the facts?” he said.
His approach is to present facts without trying to sway people toward any specific view.
“’Here's some data, please take the time to look at it objectively and make your own conclusion,’ and most of the time, I tend to see a bit of a light bulb moment,” he said.
To Kamal, one of the biggest challenges facing the industry, is politics. Even so, the industry has adapted and evolved to different economic conditions and handled technical challenges even while continuously producing energy needed to meet demand, he said.
“Once we are given any set of constraints, any set of directions, any set of rules that we need to work with, we actually are able to figure out how to do the work safely, efficiently and economically. Just give us the rules with the system we need to work with and we'll go ahead and do it,” he said.
But because politics doesn’t always follow “completely logical economic and technical conditions and constraints, then that becomes very difficult” for the industry to continue producing the energy that is needed, he said.
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