ABERDEEN, U.K.—Since the oil crash of 2014 it has been labeled the age of the independents. In the age of lower for longer oil prices it has been the flexibility and appetite for risk that has allowed many of the smaller oil companies to flourish. But if John O’Brien, deepwater focus manager at Chevron, is true to his word then they could face tougher competition from the majors right across the portfolio.

“I have a message for the independents out there,” he said. “At the moment, the independents and mediums out there outfox the majors. They are nimbler, they are a little bit more open to risk.

But we have watched, we have listened, and we have learned. Watch out, we are coming for you because we are going to change and change to look like you.”

He revealed that within Chevron, the top 700 leaders had just been delivered a message from the top. The key content was that they were not bold enough and too risk averse.

“If we are going to survive, particularly in subsea and deepwater, against the advantages that onshore unconventional hydrocarbon offers, we must be faster, nimbler and get the cost price down. When we do that, we have a bright future,” he said.

Revitalizing An Industry Stalwart
One of the programs that comes under O’Brien’s control at Chevron is DeepStar, a joint industry technology development program that counts most of the oil majors and top service companies as members. “DeepStar as an industry collaboration had been around for 25 years, and everybody thought it was successful,” he explained. “All of a sudden, it died, and almost disappeared. We sat down, and we reinvented ourselves.

“We decided we were too slow and comfortable. We used to operate off a big buffet menu. If you pay the money and there was nothing on the buffet then tough, you starved. We came back and we said we are going to have a little buffet along with a standard contracting process for an a la carte approach where people could get together and get something up and running quickly.

“As an example, Exxon sat with me recently and we decided a project within two hours, we executed a contract within 24 and had a purchase order in the vendors arms in 72. That is where we must change. And yes, to be great in technology subsea, but we have been way too slow and ponderous.”

Despite these aspirations, O’Brian admits that the industry is still too ponderous. “We talk about five years when we should be talking about two years,” he said. “We are going to have to get into that mode. The generation of people who are following me are wired for that rapid response: it is how they live their lives and we need to take advantage of that.”

Change Driven By Digital Technologies
An integral part of this new nimble operation is the growing importance of digital technologies, but O’Brien believes that all too often the emphasis is on the technology itself rather than the benefit to the enterprise. One digital tool that is being utilized throughout the industry is the digital twin and, on this O’Brien, has strong views.

“One of my absolute favorites now is the digital twin,” he said. “But if you are starting to talk about digital twins today you are too late. They already exist. You just need to go out and do it.”

When it comes to big data, he believes it is not always the size of the data that should be the focus.

“It is not about the size it is about the value of the prize you deliver back to me. Some of our biggest successes now are small data projects that will generate an absolute prize back to the business year.,” he said. “An investment of $25,000, a couple of hundred megabytes of data that delivers a $30 million return. Do that in two months and I guarantee management's going to talk to you the next time about your technology.”

Crossing The Valley Of Death With Collaboration
Despite the burgeoning influence of digital techniques, getting innovations across the so-called valley of death from technology readiness level (TRL) three up to TRL seven, ready for commercial applications, is still a daunting task, especially to achieve that in a timely manner. For O’Brian, the answer is greater collaboration and standardization right along the supply chain.

“Back at TRL three you must go to your supply chain and ask them how could they deliver this into our business? It is okay, for the Equinors and Chevrons, and Totals, we work together, we have got deep pockets.

“But what about the rest of the industry? We must standardize, we have to get data delivered to us as the operators in one format, so that everybody competes. So How do we do that? How are we going to change in the future?”

As a senior leader within an oil and gas major O’Brien has little concern to how an objective is achieved, although he admits that the engineer in him still compels to have a peek on occasions. “The real question with all that data and digital is what does it do for my business? That's what we need the conversation to be about and that gets you over that technology valley of death.”

As an example of this he points to the network of Underwater Interventions Drones (UID) that Equinor is developing to reside on the seabed.

“Why not have a UID Uber with basin-wide companies investing in resident robots, that everybody could then pull up on their app and see which robot is available tomorrow. I could go to my app and order my UID tomorrow to go and do some work,” he said. “Any competitors can see that Chevron has booked them all tomorrow, but the next day, they are free, and it would be great. Why couldn’t we do that as an industry? That's how we all behave in our private lives today with Uber.”

Still A Future For Oil And Gas
A question that O’Brien is often asked surrounds the future of the industry and whether graduates should see it as a long-term option.

“Today I'd probably stay around,” he said. “Because If I read all the reports, the hydrocarbon mix is going to change but the consumption of hydrocarbon in 2051 is going to be about the same as in 2015. We are not going to change the world that fast; we must get more efficient. We must get simpler and we have to optimize. It is going to be about digital and how people do things simpler and faster.”