Colorado School of Mines Graduate School Insights

Petroleum engineers have a role to play in the energy transition

The energy transition is the global shift from fossil fuels—coal, oil and natural gas, among others—to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar as well as energy storage such as lithium-ion batteries.

This change is driven by the need to reduce CO2 emissions in order to limit the effects of climate change.

Tisha Schuller, founder of consulting company Adamantine Energy and advisory board member of the Payne Institute for Public Policy at Mines, says the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic is an opportunity for the industry to take a leading role in creating our energy future.

“We talk about it with our clients in terms of, ‘This is a train—not only do you need to get on, you need to be conducting,’” Schuller said.

To be part of the path forward, oil and gas companies should adopt or strengthen an innovation mindset, Schuller said. Instead of trying to recreate or recapture the past, these companies should shift their gaze squarely to the future. Many are already forging ahead with research and implementation of clean-energy practices, but it’s important to make those initiatives more visible. Oil and gas companies should also seek out and be willing to form potentially unconventional partnerships, such as with environmental NGOs or bipartisan political coalitions.

It may be difficult to imagine the role that oil and gas companies can play in this evolution, but while renewable technology has made great strides in recent years, oil and gas are expected to stay in the picture for decades to come, particularly in developing regions.

“The International Energy Agency’s Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS) and the Shell Sky Scenario—both aggressive decarbonization forecasts—show an ongoing, long-term role for oil and gas, even while demand levels are reduced from where they stand today,” according to a January 2020 report from the Atlantic Council.

“In the United States, India, and China—the three largest greenhouse gas emitters—natural gas in particular has the potential to remain an integral component of the low carbon energy transition for decades to come, depending on the policy mechanisms and technologies in place.”

Some of the ways hydrocarbon companies can lead the decarbonization effort include:

  • Encouraging the switch from coal to gas, or fuels with lower greenhouse gas intensity
  • Developing and supporting the growth of technologies such as carbon capture, utilization and storage; zero-emissions production; and hydrogen
  • Avoiding long projects in high-cost or high-political risk jurisdictions and locating projects or partnerships in places where there is long-term demand

Mines, for example, recently launched the Integrated Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage Initiative, an interdisciplinary effort to mitigate climate change.

Deloitte, in its 2020 Oil and Gas Industry Outlook, says, “The real challenge is that the oil and gas companies of today, many of which aspire to be the broad-based energy companies of tomorrow, will need to figure out how to produce more oil and gas (and increasingly power) year after year while also being carbon-conscious and addressing stakeholders’ sustainability concerns.”

Deloitte’s report notes at least four concrete steps companies can take to address this challenge:

  • Identify easier ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as eliminating methane leaks from existing infrastructure
  • Deploy renewables to reduce emissions from field operations
  • Evaluate opportunities for CO2-enhanced oil recovery, in which carbon dioxide and water are used to flush residual oil from subsurface rock formations between wells
  • Greater investment in infrastructure for freshwater use and wastewater disposal

The Society of Petroleum Engineers, in its magazine The Way Ahead, says oil and gas professionals should explore, learn about and apply UN Sustainable Development Goals to their everyday work.

There are numerous case studies proving it is possible to reduce environmental footprint of projects and assets while also improving bottom-line profitability. Examples include reducing methane leaks across the value chain and the inclusion of renewable energy resources and battery-power backup to increase uptime and availability while reducing GHG emissions from upstream, midstream and downstream facilities.

Additionally, opportunities are emerging, often in partnership with nongovernmental organizations and governments, to go beyond net-zero impact to regenerate the ecosystems around our operations. Increasingly, our license to operate, our industry’s profitability, and the shareholder value we seek to generate depend on our success in these areas.

“Energy transition is just that—it’s a transition, not a switch, and it will take decades to accomplish,” says Professor Jennifer Miskimins, head of the Petroleum Engineering Department at Mines. In addition to the move away from coal to cleaner-burning fuels such as natural gas, “petroleum engineers develop skills in fluid flow in porous media—rocks—that also lend themselves to other areas such as geothermal energy, carbon dioxide sequestration, etc.”

“Having an advanced degree in petroleum engineering will help set students up to be part of the solution to all of these areas.”

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This transition also means engineers with diverse backgrounds are even more valuable to the industry. “Several different types of engineering feed well into petroleum engineering, most specifically mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, geologic engineering,” Miskimins said. “Additionally, people with backgrounds in other ‘fluid flow in porous media’ areas such as hydrology, civil engineering, etc., will fit well to pursue an advanced degree in PE.”

Learn more about the diverse, groundbreaking petroleum engineering research at Mines »

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