As the Energy Transition Accelerates, Spaces Open for Oil and Gas Engineers
The energy transition is accelerating faster than any market observers have anticipated. Here, we highlight six opportunities in the oil and gas sector for oil and gas engineers to work on a cleaner future.
Ratnika Prasad, Director of Energy Strategy, and
Andrew Baxter, Director of Energy Strategy,
Environmental Defense Fund
The energy transition is accelerating faster than any market observers have anticipated. Pandemic-driven demand and pricing shocks, together with growing climate concerns, have put intense scrutiny on the oil and gas sector to transition to a climate-aligned future model.
As young professionals who graduated soon after the pandemic hit the US, we have felt the pressures of entering the workforce to work on energy challenges at a time of profound uncertainty. While headlines may focus on the loss of jobs in traditional oil and gas careers, we have witnessed how the energy transition offers not just challenges but opportunities, including for people of all ages, to help companies adapt, innovate, and compete. With their deep technical training, on-the-ground operational knowhow, and experience working with a diverse set of workers, oil and gas engineers hold transferable skills that are critical in designing the energy system of the future. Here, we highlight six opportunities in the oil and gas sector for oil and gas engineers to work on a cleaner future.
Methane Management and Flaring Elimination
With 84 times more potency in the short term, annual methane emissions from the oil and gas industry are equivalent to the climate impact from all the world’s passenger cars and freight trucks in one year. Addressing methane emissions, thus, is one of the more critical facets of curtailing the effects of climate change. Moreover, methane is not just an environmental issue but an operational one, representing safety issues and lost revenues from leaks and wasted gas stream. From oil majors such as BP, Chevron, and Shell to American players such as Pioneer/Parsley and EOG Resources, we expect methane and flaring related opportunities to continue to grow.
New Job Roles Emerging. With increasing regulation and scrutiny of methane emissions, there will be a strong demand for environmental engineers who can develop company life cycle inventories for methane (as well as other GHGs, water, waste, and resources), field engineers for on-the-ground measurement and monitoring, and data scientists who can analyze data from continuous monitoring and create predictive algorithms to estimate carry needs to avoid flaring.
Decommissioning Orphan Oil and Gas Wells
Across the country right now, tens of thousands of officially documented orphan oil and gas wells are creating environmental hazards for their communities. “Orphan wells” are wells that became uneconomic over time and were left without being safely decommissioned. According to a paper published in the Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, orphan well plugging could lead to 120,000 to 500,000 good-paying jobs.
The Canadian government’s billion dollar site-rehabilitation program in Alberta has seen a pickup in demand for wellsite supervisors and engineers at companies such as Capstone Abandonments and Western Petroleum Management. We expect similar roles and opportunities to rise across the US, all the way from California to Pennsylvania.
New Job Roles Emerging. The chance to address orphan wells safely makes direct use of well-engineering and well-decommissioning skills held by operators and oilfield service companies incredibly valuable.
Carbon Capture and Storage
Many respected scenarios for achieving net zero rely on a robust role for carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS). However, a tremendous amount of innovation is required to make carbon capture and storage feasible at scale and address concerns around the permanence of capture and concerns of leakage. Companies such as Shell and Occidental are increasingly putting their know-how into successfully scaling up CCUS technology.
New Job Roles Emerging. Geologists, reservoir engineers, and well engineers hold the specialized skills and experience from past exploration and production work that will be critical in overcoming technical challenges and bringing down the cost of permanent storage of CO2 in reservoirs. Additionally, process engineers in the oil and gas industry already have mastery over gas handling and separation processes that operate at huge scales, making them well poised to contribute to this future area of work. Finally, it is important to transfer oil and gas well engineering expertise from the CO2 enhanced oil recovery (EOR) industry to the CO2 storage industry. There are many unique and well-known challenges to injecting CO2 into reservoirs, and these are already effectively managed in the CO2-EOR industry, but they are not experienced in the wider hydrocarbon industry. This branch of oilfield knowledge can be captured and put to work to help scale carbon-capture solutions.
Converting Refineries/Petrochemical Plants
With the shift to electric vehicles and demand for cleaner fuels in cars, planes, and residential and commercial heating, companies are increasingly looking at improving the operations at refineries and converting refineries to produce new outputs, such as renewable diesel and hydrogen. Companies such as Marathon Petroleum and Phillips 66, which are increasingly converting their refineries to biofuel production, are needing more and more health, safety, and environment professionals to manage the conversions.
New Job Roles Emerging. Refineries of the future offer several new opportunities for engineers to help in process optimization as well as quality control to ensure that refinery products have a minimal environmental and health footprint.
New Materials Innovation
With the increasing recognition of the cradle-to-grave environmental and health effects of certain categories of petrochemicals, there is a growing demand for bio-based plastics and other alternatives, which can have lower environmental footprints and can be recycled or composted more easily. Materials innovation roles continue to grow at companies such as Dow DuPont and Danimer, which need scientists and supply-chain engineers who can innovate for a more circular economy.
New Job Roles Emerging. Material science engineering requires health and safety checks to ensure that new materials not just match performance standards but also reduce the waste burden. Process engineering removes the worst health effects of production processes in refineries and plants.
Highly specialized oil and gas skills such as drilling, completions, and reservoir engineering cost companies thousands of dollars to train a single engineer. These same skills are widely applicable to the growing renewables sector of geothermal, making it attractive for companies to steer their engineering workforce in this direction. This includes opportunities with both deep wells for electricity as well as shallow ones for residential heating/cooling. Companies such as Fervo Energy, Eavor, Ormat Technologies, and other geothermal players are ones to watch in this space.
New Job Roles Emerging. The geothermal sector offers several opportunities for oil and gas engineers to use their skills in reservoir engineering and in operations, especially drilling deep, complex, geothermal wells.
The pandemic has marked a substantive shift for the oil and gas industry as consumers and government agencies alike look for a transition to cleaner and greener fuel sources. However, this need not spell doom for the industry’s highly trained workforce. Many will find jobs beyond the traditional activities of the oilfield that take advantage of their knowledge, experience, and familiarity with decades of oilfield technology development and innovation. Not only can these professionals find good jobs and stable work, they have an opportunity to use their skills in exciting new ways to accelerate the energy transition.
Ratnika Prasad is focused on leveraging investor and industry action to accelerate the investments, business models, and policies need to accelerate the energy transition. Previously, she worked as a consultant with Bain and Company. Prasad holds an MBA degree and an MPA/ID degree from Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School, and a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University.
Andrew Baxter works with a variety of stakeholders within the oil and gas industry, financial sector, and academia to drive continuous improvement in methane management and disclosure. His engagements with industry and investors also address the Environmental Defense Fund’s European methane strategy to deliver ambitious EU and national energy policies to significantly reduce global oil and gas methane emissions.