Home: Issue 5 2012 › Cover Story › Protecting the future
Protecting the future
05/06/2012 | Channel:
The development of sustainable energy is fundamental in ensuring future generations meet their energy needs
In recent years the number of oil and gas companies producing sustainability reports and commissioning studies into achieving something close to sustainable exploration and production has grown enormously. Motivated by the key drivers for sustainability; increased population, increased competition, civil strife and unrest, global climate change, and stakeholder and shareholder expectations, all of the oil and gas majors have been forced into a dramatic rethink of their past strategies, placing their ‘green credentials’, as well as their projected impact and output, at the top of their agendas.
Changes in the way the world is developing and how its population are thinking mean that to be sustainable it is our duty to produce energy so as to sustain, over many generations, our future society. So, how do we in the industry do that when that future society continues to grow at a pace that has many commentators believing that resources are running out or won’t fulfill demand?
Well, growing requirements mean that the onus is firmly on the oil and gas companies to concentrate their efforts on providing a future for our energy needs, namely, a sustainable future. But what exactly does this mean? There are many definitions of sustainable development, but chiefly it means that energy companies must develop and maintain methods of providing energy resources and energy technology that not only meets the needs of the future, as already discussed, but which also does nothing to compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs whilst surviving in a balanced and healthy manner. This effectively translates as while it is vital to discover new methods of generating and providing energy and ensuring we get the best from the remaining resources, that companies have a duty to ensure that they are addressing social and environmental issues also.
In short, oil and gas companies the world over have a duty to manage their role safely by reducing emissions, discharges and ecological contaminates and providing energy at a reasonable cost and for all those that require it worldwide. There are more than likely many large companies out there that already assume they are ‘doing their bit’ for the environment. Indeed, the advent of new renewable projects and the measure to reduce emissions by investment in CCS technology taken by some of the major oil companies would lead us to believe that sustainability is already a cornerstone of the industry.
Historically, there have been a number of challenges present throughout the oil and gas industry in terms of minimising environmental impact and managing exploration in a sustainable and socially aware manner. Chiefly, these have been based around the manner in which we go about developing resources and include areas such as as flaring and venting, effective management of drill cuttings, produced waters, drilling muds and fluids, developing and operating the best system for estimating and validating greenhouse gas emissions and maintaining safety.
In recent years of course we have seen other aspects of the industry that have presented challenges to the notion of sustainability. Macondo springs to mind when considering this. The danger of spills, and the knock on effects of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico presented a challenge to the sustainability ideals that companies had commenced installing within their businesses. Oil spills, and the after effects are the antithesis of the very notion of sustainability. In the immediate/short term the environmental disaster that they present, and the lasting effect they have on the local environment has results that will be felt by generations to come. Alongside that, socially speaking, these types of fault have a permanent impact on the public’s perception of our industry.
Decommissioning is a rapidly growing challenge. As structures in mature areas reach the end of their life time much effort has to be placed in ensuring that they are removed, along with any lingering traces of their previous activity in a safe, efficient and environmentally friendly manner.
What should we do and what has been done?
Sustainability in the oil and gas industry needs to encompass a fully integrated approach, taking into consideration all of the aforementioned challenges. Thankfully businesses, strongly encouraged by governments and energy forums have been making considerable in-roads in the field for some time.
So what of the measures that have been taken already? For the last ten years or so one of the key drivers of many major oil companies has been offsetting their oil or gas exploration with the development of renewable energy projects such as wind turbines, wave power technology or solar and geothermal projects. This is one of the main aspects of the sustainable path, where those involved agree that sustainable energy sources are most often regarded as including all renewable sources, such as plant matter, solar power, wind power, wave power, geothermal and tidal power.
There has naturally been a rapid increase in the number of renewable projects in Europe over the last decade, particularly in the UK where the Government has set targets for wind and renewable energy.
Similarly, hydroelectric and solar energy present perhaps some of the cleanest methods of providing energy for the future. But where we must be careful is in the definition of sustainable itself. It is important to remember that no power source is entirely impact free, as we involved with oil and gas know all too well. All energy sources, whether it is drilling into the ground, extracting gas from underground caverns or exploiting the wind or the sun’s energy, require energy to produce and at the same time give rise to some degree of pollution. Also, it has to be remembered that while renewable energy power plants do provide a steady flow of energy, at present, the number of steady-slow renewable power plants is simply not enough to meet energy demands.
The key point in achieving true sustainable energy then is to continue to develop alternative sources such as the renewable technologies we have mentioned, but while doing the utmost to minimise social and cultural impact and providing the best energy. It is essentially about achieving a fine balance between all three points. For example, as previously discussed the developing countries of the world will be among the largest in terms of energy demands for the future. So, while energy companies must work to develop renewable energy sources for this, at present, the technology is simply not effective enough to provide the energy needed by these burgeoning states.
The role of oil and gas
Of course it is not as simple as assuming that these renewable technologies achieve sustainable energy, and anyway, it fails to answer the direct question of how oil and gas companies can achieve sustainability within their own organisations. While it is encouraging that such businesses are working on developing new forms of renewable energy, they must remember that oil and gas will be required to meet energy demand for some time, and in order to build the correct energy mix they must continue to look inwards.
While, naturally, there is still a place for oil and gas then, the ultimate efficiency of these resources must be improved in order to be truly sustainable. This means that for the oil and gas companies, sustainability is not only about changes in technology and practice, but also in the way that our energy is used for the future. This means reducing the amount of energy required to extract, produce, and deliver the various goods and services. This can be achieved through the development of even more effective technology, such as methods of identifying and developing discovered reserves in a far less intrusive fashion, ensuring a faster elimination of non-prospect areas through better acquisition of seismic data and more streamlined basin modeling, developing smarter wells, and removing waste more efficiently.
Alongside renewable energy therefore, achieving energy efficiency is the other key pillar of sustainable energy. Ultimately both need to be developed to stabilise and reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and both are equally important. Improved efficiency for example serves to slow the overall energy demand so that the rising clean renewable energies can be used to make deeper cuts into the use of fossil fuels. Alternatively, if energy use and efficiency rises too fast then renewable energy will be chasing a receding target and will never be able to meet the demands.
Ultimately, sustainable energy is a finely balanced line that oil and gas companies must walk in order to achieve the best results for the future. They must continue to develop new technologies to prepare for the inevitable point when our energy resources dwindle but our demand is still exceeding all previous figures. At the same time, emphasis has to be on developing the best energy socially and environmentally responsibly so that we have the best chance of survival in the future.
There is no quick fix for achieving sustainable energy, instead it will take a great deal of hard work and an insight into the requirements of all energy users. It is intertwined with the significance of economy, energy and environment - all three of these points are tightly connected and cannot be separated. There is no escape from poverty and underdevelopment without economic development, and there is no prospect of economic development without energy. And while we have come some way in preparing for a sustainable future, there remains a big challenge ahead for all of us involved within the industry