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Sustainability vs. survival in oil and gas: how do the two coexist?

We spoke with Charlie Lewis, Director of Technology at BP about sustainability vs. survival in oil and gas.

22 September 2020


contact-Jay Gujral

Jay Gujral

Account Director

Ask the man on the street what sustainability means to them and you’ll most likely hear an answer rooted in environmentalism. For oil and gas, however, the phrase’s meaning is two-fold. It doesn’t simply mean reducing carbon emissions; it means the very survival of the industry itself. 


Charlie Lewis knows this more than most. As BP’s Director of Technology, he has led innovation across the company, navigating the ‘Grand Challenges’ (billion-dollar problems that have plagued Oil and Gas for years), as well as the fallout from the major spill in 2010 that heightened both public and political pressure on the industry as a whole. 


While some commentators are already writing obituaries for hydrocarbon as a credible source of fuel for the 21st century and beyond, Lewis is bullish about oil and gas and its ability to play a key role in shaping the future of energy consumption.


“The move to renewable energy has only been semi-successful, both for Oil & Gas companies and for their challengers on the outside. Wind farms, particularly in the US, have historically been tricky for politicians to navigate at a local level. Biofuel, bar a selection of special cases, remains a difficult area to make a profit, and nuclear energy is still viewed negatively in the eyes of the public. Hydrocarbons still have a role to play.”


In the face of adversity, there is even greater onus on finding a way to adapt in order to not only survive, but thrive. So how do they do it? There are many ways to get there, but for Lewis, one stands out above the rest.


“Digitalisation. It’s the only thing that is 100% inevitable for the industry as it looks to move forward. “The smart companies have already started their transition. Typically, oil and gas is extremely slow when it comes to adopting wholesale change – in my experience, the average time for a project to get to market is 15 years. Now, though, it’s starting to move faster. Companies are adopting a ‘sooner rather than later’ approach, despite investment in innovation being much harder to come by in light of the COVID crisis.”


Digging deeper into that original dichotomy – the sustainability paradox – and it becomes clear why someone like Lewis is so emphatically behind the idea of ‘going digital’. 


For him, it’s all about efficiency. Developing the technology that will improve an operation by 1% could save a company billions which, in turn, would unlock further breathing space to explore innovations that could help them reduce their emissions further.


At its core, though, digitalisation is as much about a cultural shift as it is a technological one: “One thing the industry doesn’t do well, historically speaking, is change. Change is very difficult to implement, particularly when investment levels are low, and many of the people on the ground – from the foreman to the in-house IT teams – are resistant to it. Engineers are taught not to alter their processes, as long as they’re working safely.”


For a workforce already looking over its shoulder, sharp shifts in one direction are bound to cause alarm. As organisations begin to restructure to a tech-first approach, however, provisions need to be put in place to re-educate those whose skill sets’ can transfer into a new paradigm of sustainable work. 


“Everyone is expecting a lot of job losses, and on one level this is an unavoidable outcome of the situation we’re in – but re-training the workforce in key areas, along with bringing in outside hires with ready-made expertise, will make the transition easier. Bringing about a cultural shift is more difficult than you think. But in a crisis, things are forced to move faster.”


This has been seen industry-wide with the adoption of Internet of Things (IoT) technology and its ability to harness data generated by in-house systems that track and assess almost every internal process. One outcome? The expanded use of predictive analytics to anticipate and identify issues – leakages, breakages, stoppages – before they even arise.


“Some plants are already using ‘digital twins’: a completely digital, real-time mirror image of the premises and its systems. Pairing that with your operating system, you’re suddenly able to experiment with solutions for things like corrosion without expending much time or resource, and then dispatch a worker – or even a robot – to check on the pipes before a leak emerges. 


“It’s a perfect example of how artificial intelligence and data can have an immediate, tangible impact on refineries everywhere, and it’s why IoT within this context is beginning to run rampant across Oil and Gas”.


For many organisations, the problem has never been accessing data; if anything, internal teams are ‘overwhelmed’ by how much they have.

“It’s difficult for these companies to know where to start. There is so much information to process, sometimes it can take more than six months for your request to be accepted. It’s a huge problem; they can’t handle the volume. It raises concerns over its accuracy, so data-driven strategic decisions are put on hold as a result.” 


This has opened up an opportunity for smaller, more agile companies to step in and provide the solutions these bigger organisations need to evolve, too. The issue in the past hasn’t necessarily been the tech, Lewis says, but an unwillingness to adopt it: “To get Chief Engineers on board, the dialogue needs to change. They don’t want to just hear a value proposition – they want somebody to explain these digital concepts in a way that builds trust, rather than skepticism.”


A sustainable future, for both the planet and its energy sources, looks tied to the strength of these digital innovations. Against a backdrop of global uncertainty, Charlie Lewis still has faith in the industry’s ability to capitalise on the new role it has to play as the pace of change begins to increase.


“Now, if there’s a good idea on the table that can make things more efficient, I’m going to break the wheel in this part of the industry and change how things are done. We have to figure out how to deal with climate change, but to do that is a question of reduction rather than elimination.”


“The energy industry will be around long after our grandchildren’s children – and that includes hydrocarbons. For any reasonable business plan over the next decade or so, they will still play a huge role. We may have passed the peak, the world is still addicted to them”. 


For all the talk of change, at least there is still one thing that will remain a constant. 

This article is a part of our Innovation Leaders in sustainability series. For further articles, valuable insights and a look into sustainability solutions, visit our Innovation Leaders page here

22 September 2020

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