The future for a petroleum geoscientist might seem more uncertain these days as the transition to cleaner energy begins. Fewer students have their ambitions set on oil and gas careers and industry professionals are beginning to question how their knowledge and skills will fit into a world of new energies.
“Oil and gas have given us many positives in terms of wealth creation, improving quality of life and opportunities to travel, but it also brought an elevated carbon intensity in our lives,” said AAPG Member John R. Underhill, professor of exploration geoscience at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. “But each and every one of us has some role to play in decarbonizing industry, the energy transition and achieving net zero, in which oil and gas play an integral part.”
Underhill served as a panelist at the recent AAPG Energy Opportunities Forum: “Net Zero by 2050 – Baseline Metrics and Strategic Projections.”
As many observers have noted, oil and gas will continue to play a key role in fueling the energy system for decades to come. As well as being needed to explore, geoscientists will be the “bedrock” for many emerging roles prompted by the transition because of their expertise in the subsurface, said Underhill, who also is the academic executive director of the United Kingdom’s GeoNetZero Centre for Doctoral Training program.
Geoscientists will be needed in the future to help identify and develop geothermal energy sources as well as safe sites for carbon storage, hydrogen and the byproducts of nuclear energy. But now there is a pressing need for their unique and detailed knowledge of the subsurface as countries around the world rapidly ramp up on carbon capture and storage projects to reach the global emissions goal of net-zero by 2050.
The Next Step Toward Net-Zero
Since 2018, there has been an “explosion in interest” in carbon capture, utilization and storage to the degree that this year AAPG ran its inaugural CCUS conference, Underhill noted. However, he worries that the pressure to quickly reduce emissions might lead to hasty decisions, poor site selection and projects developed by engineers who lack crucial insight into the subsurface traps, their seals and the internal dynamics of the host reservoir in which carbon dioxide will be injected.
“Geoscientists have the knowledge, the skills, the software technology and the data acquisition needed to understand and avoid inappropriate site selections,” Underhill said. “Their skillsets are perfectly placed toward the de-carbonization of oil and gas systems.”
For example, as oil and gas fields are decommissioned in the North Sea, there is potential for those fields to be altruistically handed over to governments to fast-track carbon storage projects, Underhill said.
“It’s crucial to undertake the research to pick the right site,” he stressed. “If sites fail because the critical risk has been missed, credibility in the industry will be lost and we will never get a second chance to get it right,” he added.
Furthermore, as carbon storage sites are developed, geophysicists – now more than ever – will be needed to continuously monitor them over many decades, said Nick Richardson, the head of exploration and new ventures at the regulatory Oil and Gas Authority in the United Kingdom.
And, in the case of carbon storage projects in depleted fields and saline aquifers, the pressure of the subsurface will increase with injections and could require the production of water to carefully manage pressure fluctuations, Richardson added.
Perhaps the best way to promote effective and safe carbon stores is to incentivize them. Underhill commended the United States for offering tax credits to taxpayers that capture, store or use CO2 or carbon oxides in accordance with rules laid out in Section 45Q of the Internal Revenue Code.
“If a company is able to put CO2 in the ground, it’s a potential win-win for that company,” Underhill said of CCUS projects. “They could enhance oil and gas recovery, but at the same time store carbon underground and also get a tax credit.”
Furthermore, the United States’ CarbonSAFE (Carbon Storage Assurance Facility Enterprise) Initiative is helping to improve the understanding of project screening, site selection, characterization, and baseline monitoring of storage sites for CO2 from industrial sources.
As CCUS programs become more cost beneficial, Underhill believes they will prompt the creation of new positions for petroleum geoscientists.
Geoscience in a Low-Carbon Future
Apart from their knowledge of the subsurface, other special qualities and skillsets of geoscientists are highly transferable to CCUS projects and developing new energy sources, said AAPG Member Andrea Reynolds, who moderated the AAPG Energy Opportunities Forum.
The ability to map, interpret seismic data, think spatially and in multiple dimensions, and to be comfortable with risk and solving large, multifaceted problems makes them prime candidates for new energy frontiers, said Reynolds, who is the general manager of business transformation, exploration at Shell.
“Having experience with risk and uncertainty allows us to see things from different points of view compared to other industries or fields,” she said. “We do a lot of scenario planning – a full suite of scenarios. Where can something go wrong and why can it go wrong? Sometimes when we look at the bigger picture, we get more creative ideas and we try to make those happen.”
Geoscientists also are known for breaking paradigms. Working closely with engineers and tech developers, geoscientists have been able to make both deepwater production and hydraulic fracturing work on levels once thought impossible. In fact, innovation is the “hallmark of our industry,” she said.
Yet, concern about the future among mid-career and even senior-level industry professionals is palpable, Reynolds said. “People who have not had the most advanced training wonder how they will make the transition.”
Also in tune with the “angst” experienced by some in the industry, Richardson reminded that oil and gas companies are in the best position to rely on their own multidisciplinary teams to successfully carry out the major projects of today and tomorrow.
“Our job is to provide energy for the world,” he said. “As long as there is a demand and a need, companies will recruit those people who have the right skills.”
If employees are feeling vulnerable, he urged them to “encourage their companies to go after opportunities and ask what they can contribute, what they can do with their skills to put themselves in the right position.”
As an energy regulator, Richardson said his organization has integrated an overarching CCUS program so that employees do not feel siloed. Yet, other organizations have set up individual departments to tackle CCUS.
“That can create a perception of a team of special people working on exciting future projects, while others remain working in oil and gas,” Richardson said. “It’s important to make sure you are not creating internal walls and a division within your company.”
Referring to the lack of students majoring in the geosciences and the large number of industry professionals on the verge of retirement, Richardson added, “There’s a huge gap now. That’s why we are having to train people who are already in the industry. If you are a reservoir modeler, you need to be able to model CO2 and the injection and evacuation of unfamiliar fluids. Many people are starting to do this work now and they are learning pretty quickly that there are some key differences with oil and gas models, but also many parallels.”
Companies that have developed viable business models for CCUS projects are finding that recruiting their own talent makes the most sense.
“Rather than young recruits, I am seeing that companies are picking their A teams of technical experts and spending the time to understand which people are best suited for the job,” Underhill said. “There are greater opportunities in the short term for people who have got experience to reskill or reposition their skills for newer positions.”
Employees who feel left behind might be tempted to leave the industry, unable to see how their expertise will be critical moving forward.
“That would be a disaster for us,” Richardson said. “We will need their skills for decades to come.”
The Next Generation of Geoscientists
But how will industry address the gap that currently exists between early career and retiring geoscientists? Messaging is key if universities wish to attract geoscience majors for both oil and gas and new energies.
“If we can articulate the message that geoscience is a solution and not the problem for the environment, and that it’s exciting to see new technologies and what we can do in the subsurface, we will have attracted a new group of students,” Underhill said. “If they could see that by learning the skills we have developed in oil and gas exploration or in mineral exploitation for a different purpose, and that that will help the planet, we have a chance there – a window of opportunity – for undergraduates and post-graduates to realize that geoscience is a very attractive career option.”
Richardson added, “I can see why young people might not see oil and gas as attractive, but they are not coming into just oil and gas but something much more integrated in the energy industry.”
The GeoNetZero program is striving to do just that. Originally established in 2014, the Centre for Doctoral Training is an industry-academic partnership that combines doctoral research with 20 weeks of training for the next generation of geoscientists to develop the skills needed to reduce the environmental impact of oil and gas exploration and extraction, focus on responsible environmental management9 and speed up the process of reducing carbon use in the global economy.
“We are training students to have greater bandwidth and to be more employable by the industry, academia or government when they complete their studies,” Underhill said. “The 60 students who have graduated from the CDT so far have all gotten employment, which is just phenomenal. The gender balance in the program is 40-percent female, which is higher than the industry average.”
Furthermore, by supporting GeoNetZero, private companies can accrue credits for future carbon storage licenses in sedimentary basins in general and the North Sea in particular, Underhill added.
“We have students, real people, doing real projects, all of which face the low-carbon energy transition and challenge of net zero,” he said. “It’s a fantastic conflation of different parts that have come together at the right time and in the right place.”
“We will need those students’ skills for decades to come,” Richardson added about the program. “It’s an incredibly exciting and stimulating time to be working, but yes, there are lots of changes. Change brings about uncertainty, but it also brings opportunities in something else that is much better and cleaner with a brighter future.”