Innovation Thrives In The Oil & Gas Industry
The extraordinary shifts that the oil and gas industry has seen in recent years have been largely driven by technological advances in the realm of horizontal drilling and the enormous potential of previously untapped shale plays. The same spirit of innovation which has made this growth possible is now beginning to be applied to the other side of the industry: addressing and alleviating the environmental impact of this drilling. In the past decade, more and more O&G majors have begun to embrace clean technology innovation, recognizing that environmental issues of climate change and water protections are a significant concern.
An increasing acceptance of climate change impact from activities undertaken by the oil and gas industry has led to a heavily scrutinized and regulated regime. A good example is the growing awareness of methane emissions in the sector. In terms of greenhouse gasses which affect the health of the climate, methane is up to 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20 year span, and 30% of total methane emissions in the US are generated by the oil and gas industry. Last year, the EPA finalized new methane emissions standards for the industry, which put considerable pressure on companies to reduce their output and find ways to clean up all aspects of their operations. Clean technolgy startups are stepping into the fray to develop better products and practices and help O&G majors meet or exceed their regulatory targets.
In particular, the extractive upstream oil and gas industry has been able to quantify and interpret the environmental impact of their activities, which has spurred on the sector to innovate wherever possible. For example, revolutionary waste management companies are using cutting-edge science and technologies to create new solutions such as slurry injection to disrupt existing disposal models. This type of innovation provides greater protection of the surface and groundwater, reduced energy and greenhouse gas emissions and allows for the capture of high purity methane which can be utilized instead of being released into the air. In the best examples, adoption of these new clean technologies is not only environmentally sound but can also reduce operating costs and increase profits.
Increasing digitization of the oil and gas industry has allowed startups to use big data and cloud technologies to create the ‘digital oilfield.’ The digital oilfield conceptualizes a web-based system in which companies can measure and manage all of the data coming from the oilfield. An example of new clean technology that contributes to a digital oilfield is well monitoring and surveillance platforms. This type of software applies best-in-class well testing techniques to real time data, enabling the operator to understand trends and react to variables so as to assure the long-term health and safety of the well.
Startups benefit significantly from partnerships with oil and gas majors, who own the vast majority of the existing energy infrastructure around the world. Startups can utilize this infrastructure to test their pilot technologies before making them available on a commercial scale. The majors, in turn, benefit from the blue sky thinking and disruptive approach that startups bring to a long-entrenched industry.
Clean technology startups often face barriers in the form of a highly-regulated industry hampered by a traditional mindset. Breakthroughs become possible when “clean” and “green” also means efficient and cost-effective, and when the tangible benefits to companies are made explicit. Increasingly, large O&G companies are recognizing the advantages of partnership with these smaller outfits and are throwing their considerable resources behind the innovative approaches of the startups. The health of the oil and gas industry and the health of the planet do not need to be mutually exclusive, if the leaders in the field remain open to the development of new, greener solutions to old problems.