Sustainable Recovery: The Multiple Benefits of Collaboration
The continued collaboration of the oil and gas industry with other technological sectors is crucial for its success. SPE has itself been a catalyst for collaboration in the industry through the events it organizes and with other societies to bring together practitioners from different disciplines.
The oil and gas industry is recovering along with the health situation and the world’s economy following one of the largest downturns in its 160-year history caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
What comes ahead brings its own challenges. The recent Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Working Group 1 contribution to the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis, published in August, highlighted the “widespread and rapid acceleration of climate change,” with the 1.5°C threshold reached as early as the end of this decade. The dramatic weather events around the globe this summer (in the Northern Hemisphere) with historical temperature records on the North American Pacific Coast and in the central and eastern Mediterranean regions, and huge fires impacting those regions and others such as Siberia, were a reminder that the transformation is occurring now.
In this context, the energy mix that the world uses today needs to evolve to a more rational use through energy efficiency and with a lower carbon content, starting from the use of coal. The oil and gas industry has been pioneering the development of technologies such as carbon capture and underground storage and blue hydrogen. International oil companies and national oil companies rank amongst the largest technology investors in renewables and energy storage. Renewables also have a strong potential in applications such as steam injection. Collaboration among the industry and with other peripheral sectors will be an essential ingredient to accelerate the transformation of the energy sector.
I personally started in the oil and gas industry more than 4 decades ago in research and development (R&D) with a large oilfield service company, where I led a team of scientists investigating hydraulic fracturing. One of the projects was related to acid fracturing, which required the injection of a viscous non-Newtonian pad to fracture the formation and keep the fracture open, followed by acid which had a much lower viscosity. The two-fluid displacement inside the fracture led to an instability called viscous fingering. In order to understand the phenomenon, we put together a very diverse team, comprising a mathematician, an astrophysicist, a physicochemist, and a geologist. The team was unable to initially work well together and collaborate. The breakthrough came when a high-level scientist from Boston University, a specialist in critical phenomena, was added as a catalyst to the team. Within a few months, the team managed to develop and validate a model for viscous fingering using diffusion-limited aggregation and fractal theory, and its work was published in Nature and the American Physical Society’s Physical Reviews Journals.
The team then developed a new set of models for wormholes created by the injection of acid through matrix acidizing and fracture acidizing which were used to create the required chemistry to ensure effectiveness of the treatments. I remain convinced that if we had not included the diversity of the skills and used a catalyst for collaboration, we would not have cracked the research code so rapidly.
Creating a better world requires teamwork, partnerships, and collaboration, as we need an entire army of companies to work together to build a better world within the next few decades. This means corporations must embrace the benefits of cooperating with one another.
The collaboration that the oil and gas industry has with other technological sectors is also crucial for its success. During my early research days, another team from the same company I was working for started collaborating with the medical sector to understand if nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) technology that was still in its infancy could be used to characterize hydrocarbon-bearing porous media. Hospitals donated precious NMR equipment time to the scientists to analyze the cores, which proved the feasibility. What remained to be conceived, however, was the miniaturization of the equipment from large scale to a logging tool, which took several years to develop.
And today as I am writing this column, Eni in collaboration with MIT spinoff Commonwealth Fusion Systems announced what could be a big breakthrough in magnetic confinement fusion (a technology that reproduces the way the sun generates its own energy), which may represent a fundamental step toward controlled fusion.
Our industry has also helped others by techniques it initially developed or pioneered. An example that comes to mind is the wavelet theory.
A research scientist, Jean Morlet from Elf Aquitaine who worked on exploration R&D, came up with the concept of wavelets in the 70s, and it was through collaboration with French École Polytechnique’s labs, and in particular my fellow Tunisian-born countryman Dr. Yves Meyer, that the theory of wavelets took place. It is now widely used in other sciences and economic and finance disciplines.
SPE has itself been a catalyst for collaboration in the industry through the different types of events it organizes. We also collaborate with other societies to bring together practitioners from different disciplines. In 2009, with the support of 2010 SPE President Dr. Behrooz Fattahi, SPE co-led the first forum on sustainability in the beautiful Swiss city of Lausanne, along with AIME, AIChE, and ASCE. It was the starting point of the creation of a strong community within SPE and the other societies around the theme of sustainability. Subsequently, in 2019 and under the leadership of 2019 SPE President Sami Alnuaim and SPE Technical Director for Health, Safety, and Environment Johana Dunlop, an innovative forum evolved, The Gaia Summit: Oil and Gas on the Right Side of History? In addition to SPE, the event involved AAPG, IOGP, IPIECA, and OGCI. The Gaia sustainability framework is now being rolled out around the world.
SPE and AAPG have been collaborating successfully on many programs and conferences over a period of 5 decades, including the Offshore Technology Conference, International Petroleum Technology Conference, Unconventional Resources Technology Conference, and the Petroleum Resources Management System.
The impact of the pandemic and a mutual realization that the two organizations were experiencing a significant alignment in their approach to membership and to other stakeholders, as well as the perspectives brought by the energy transition, began the exploration of a merger.
Collaboration is a key part of the success of any organization, executed through a clearly defined vision and mission and based on transparency and constant communication.
We will be submitting the merger proposal to general membership vote by the end of the first quarter of 2021. The merger team with the support of the boards of both professional societies has been focusing on defining the common mission and vision that the new combined organization would have. Along with a dedicated information and Q&A website, a series of townhalls have been organized to ensure maximum feedback. Both boards will have a vote by the end of September 2021 to approve the merger, and we expect to complete the process by the middle of 2022. Your feedback and suggestions on the process of strengthening what will be the largest energy industry association is essential.