Energy Transition Fits Into Petroleum Engineering and Geoscience Education
Petroleum industry engineering and geoscience professionals must evolve both to meet the challenges of the energy transition and to continue to provide the feedstock for hydrocarbon-based products needed for a stable and robust economy. Petroleum engineering schools and geoscience programs have the opportunity to expand education and equip people with the critical expertise and leadership skills needed for the transition.
By several measures, the energy transition is under way. This shift is seen in the diversification of energy investment capital; in the continued expansion of renewable power capacity; in the growth in the electrification of transport; and, most notably, in the increased political and societal demands for lower-carbon processes and products. The current and historically dominant role of fossil fuels in supplying electricity and transportation fuels signals the need for the oil and gas industry to evolve to retain its essential role in supplying the world’s energy during the energy transition and beyond.
This paper presents specific opportunity areas for the upstream oil and gas sector. First is the imperative to develop and deploy both new technologies and improved work processes to continuously reduce the carbon intensity of oil and gas operations. While new field developments are a natural first target, existing oil and gas operations present a much larger carbon footprint but are a greater challenge. Such “low-carbon engineering” practices would include, for example, the substantial reduction and eventual elimination of fugitive and noncommercialized methane releases (such as nonemergency flaring). Also included in this opportunity area would be an accelerated effort in increasing the efficiency of in-field energy use and to exploit opportunities to deploy noncombustion and renewable energy sources.
The second opportunity area is to exploit the potential of the enormous subsurface pore spaces underlying existing oil and gas operations for energy storage and CO2 sequestration. The use of the enormous pore volumes in depleted reservoirs and saline aquifers, combined with the repurposing of the existing wells and surface facilities, represent an opportunity for the industry to bring operational experience, technical expertise, and assets to the energy transition.
Realistically, because of the excessive cost of this conversion, complexities in market and demand adaptation, and the limitation of energy-storage technology using batteries, there is a need for careful evaluation of alternative options. One option is to find solutions for sequestering and storing carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases at scale. Under this option, fossil fuels will continue to play a significant role in the total energy system. The second concern is with the expansion of renewable sources of energy; there is a critical need for dependable, affordable, and long-lasting energy storage at scale.
The challenge to the engineering community is how to use the Earth as a resource while continuously reducing adverse environmental and social effects. For example, there is a need to further examine and image the subsurface and to delineate subsurface resources. This includes recognizing geologic characteristics that affect the flow of fluids in the subsurface and understanding and managing interactive processes that include hydrological, thermal, mechanical, chemical, and biological processes. Improved understanding of subsurface coupled processes is essential for the safe design and recovery of hydrocarbons; recovery of geothermal fluids; exploration of minerals; underground mining and storage operations; and, importantly, subsurface storage of greenhouse gases and transport of contaminants in groundwater. This is consistent with and supportive of three of the grand challenges identified by the US National Academy of Engineering that fall in the category of Earth resources engineering. They include developing methods of carbon sequestration, access to clean water, and managing the nitrogen cycle.
There are economic challenges in capturing existing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and research in this area is continuing. For any new CO2 generated from fossil fuel power plants and fossil fuel-based transportation, the engineering profession needs to innovate methods to capture and safely remove and store these waste emissions.
In this paper, we discuss how the petroleum industry can play the leading role in using the subsurface voidage it has created during the past 150 years by oil and gas production as a repository for greenhouse gases. The industry also can offer saline aquifers reachable by its existing idle wells for energy storage from renewable sources. As such, the upstream part of the petroleum industry can play a key role as a storage operator and developer of important technological and operational solutions. This necessitates that industry professionals be oriented to see the industry in a new light and engage in proper education to participate in and lead the energy transition.