So BP have gone back to the future. Beyond Petroleum all over again.
When I started the Bestem Network 7 years ago I focussed it on issues surrounding the Oil and Gas industry – specifically how to use technology and reconfigure operations to develop and produce projects at lower cost and risk.
Last drop or leave it in the ground?
The Wood report was flavour of the month and much of my work centred around MER-UK (Maximum Economic Recovery). One of the categories of posts on this site was (and still is) labelled “Last Drop”; it focussed around the changes that would be required to make it possible to cooperate economically to achieve the maximum aggregate profit for the industry. It tackled things like tying together infrastructure, developing small pools and draining the basin over the long-haul and not to optimise short-term or locally.
While I never expected that the industry would return to 2012 levels, I did expect that it would come back and stabilise at a more “normal level”. I was concerned that the “big-crew-change” would mean that young people would not have the knowledge to operate our much-needed oil and gas infrastructure. I had no idea that they would reject oil and gas completely. That thought occurred to me in 2019 when I visited London Tech Week.
In 2017 I wrote that exploration was really of waning interest [Link] but I didn’t expect one of the primary reasons was that we didn’t want any more hydrocarbons.
Contrast this recommendation from Wood in 2014: “Government and Industry to commit to a new strategy for maximising the recovery [of oil reserves] in UK Continental Shelf] with the growing idea that we might leave reserves in the ground.
I wonder what the report on maximising the economic recovery from the whaling industry said.
Could the oil industry just disappear?
Despite sounding the drum for the 4th Industrial Revolution and arguing (nicely) with Patrick Von Pattay ( I was the more conservative because I thought that oil and gas really wouldn’t change fundamentally). It appears I may have underestimated things.
A very successful (and foresighted) businessman recently told me that the plastic-straw industry had simply ceased to exist within six months of the revelations of the damage it did to the oceans in the TV programme the Blue Planet. This chap now takes into account environmental position before bidding for work from a company – not for ecological reasons. He wants to direct effort to customers that will remain in business!
Surely we can’t do without oil?
Of course, there are oilmen who will tell you that the world economy cannot work without hydrocarbons – their case has always been that growth will come from renewables, and that demand would be flat. I tend to agree. But what if we’re wrong?
Here are a couple of thoughts for this (exceptionally) rainy Feb morning.
- Solar is the cheapest form of energy production already. It’s getting cheaper and more efficient at a blistering rate.
- Petroleum products might become classified as a dangerous substance – think asbestos or CFCs, what would that do to demand and price when supply, licensing, permitted uses and public perception of the product changes.
- Microeconomics – which is what many businessmen optimise for – operates within Macro economic boundaries. Macro economics are formed by policy, are political and by nature are ideological. Think about: Soviet Russia, China, Thomas Pickety, Trade Wars, Sanctions. Things you think are “real” business decisions can be usurped by political will in an instant.
- The IPCC report on climate change was issued in 2007, the Paris agreement was 2015 we seem likely to go beyond this and as a world embrace Net Zero sooner rather than later. For insight listen to Myles Allen on the life scientific (BBC https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000fgcn )
Engineering will still be important
With all this doom and gloom around it’s easy to get despondent. But, here’s the good news: if the world decides it wants to change then this will call for difficult and complex engineering, delivered in remote locations across political divides on an unprecedented scale over a mulit-decade period.
Not only will we need to invent all sorts of new technology for carbon reduction, energy efficiency, generation, storage etc. etc. We will need to deploy them all and decommission all the legacy assets.
There are not many companies that can muster the amount of engineering talent, capital control processes, large scale international project management, logistics construction that will be required. In fact, I can think of two that could – Energy and Shipping. And of course, if the world doesn’t change, oil and gas will have a renaissance.
Under all circumstances the people inside the oil industry will have skills that are needed and which are hard to replicated at scale. The only loss of value will come from those who can no longer exploit their control of underground deposits of oil in the future, and those that must pay for legacy assets and impact from the past.
Fundamental engineering practice still matters
With all the digital wizz (which I fully support) it is important not to lose sight of the practical situational requirements, human organisation and civil society that we need to enable the “platform” in which the innovative start-ups, electric cars and energy transition can happen.
Basic engineering discipline still matters, and is sometimes overlooked by hand-waving innovators and wet-behind-the ears management consultants.
You probably know about the 737-Max flight-stability software and instrumentation scandal. Recently, I read an article on Boeing where it says they are now re-inspecting new plane fuel tanks because they have found rags and tools left in them by construction workers: https://www.flightglobal.com/air-transport/boeing-orders-737-max-inspections-after-fuel-tank-fod/136819.article
It’s a sobering thought when flying :- if the wrong culture takes hold and introspective and solid processes are overtaken by gregarious and extroverted leadership.
The world still needs good engineering.
Ubique & Quo Fas Et Gloria Ducunt