With all the emphasis in recent years on renewable energy and the expected energy transition, younger generations interested in Earth science might feel conflicted about choosing a career in the geosciences, and in petroleum geology specifically.
Nationwide, enrollments in geoscience programs experienced “marked declines” in the 2019-20 academic year, reported the American Geosciences Institute in June of this year. Though the number of departments reporting enrollments was the same as the prior year, undergraduate enrollments dropped 10 percent, and graduate enrollments dropped 27 percent.
Yet despite current trends, many young professionals with backgrounds in the oil and gas industry are staying committed to their careers, seeing unique opportunities to use their knowledge and skills to make an energy transition as smooth as possible.
At a session entitled, “From Petroleum Industry to Energy Industry: Global Young Professionals’ Perspectives on a Sustainable Future,” at the International Meeting for Applied Geoscience and Energy conference recently held in Denver, speakers representing the World Petroleum Council’s Young Professionals Committee attributed their career decisions to the ongoing need for oil and gas, opportunities to help the industry decarbonize and a growing number of geoscience-related fields that are in need of their skillsets to thrive.
“There are always questions about what a career in the industry might look like early on,” said David Lankford-Bravo, a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas – El Paso specializing in salt tectonics and sedimentology.
Yet, many young professionals are recognizing that the industry will play a “leading role in solving many of our energy and sustainability challenges.”
Stéphane Rousselet, chair of the WPC’s Young Professionals Committee, who began a career in the industry’s upstream sector and now works with Hager Group as a corporate strategy project director, said younger generations have accepted that the world has entered into a “structural storm with rapid evolutions of energy needs.” They see the transition as a career opportunity for geoscientists, especially those who “remain curious” and are flexible.
“Climate change is transforming our lives and also the way we work,” he said. “Going forward, it means more and more changes for all of us at the individual level but also for our companies.”
Rousselet noted that an increasing number of global agreements and national regulations are being made to mitigate emissions and promote cleaner energy. In his home country of France, he said the nation has made plans to ban the consumption of natural gas in new residential buildings.
Public opinion is also changing, Rousselet said, citing the “Fridays for Future” climate movement spearheaded by activist Greta Thunberg.
And, even though the industry is, in some instances, struggling to attract talent, surveys taken by the WPC indicate a growing number of young professionals are considering staying in the industry for the long run, driven by the potential impact they could have on the environment.
“If we are part of the issue, we are also a major contributor to the solutions,” Rousselet said, “and in my opinion that’s what makes this industry and this career in the industry so exciting.”
Knowing that oil and gas will continue to play a key role during the transition and in the future, young geoscientists are developing creative approaches and new sets of expertise to improve production from existing reservoirs and optimize production, Rousselet said. Many also see geothermal energy, critical minerals and carbon storage as avenues to pursue, using the Earth itself to provide low-carbon energy.
“Wherever you start your career, you will need to prove your adaptability and embrace these changes,” he said.
Low Carbon Business
On the business side of the industry, young professionals are tackling the financial challenges that go along with progressing the industry’s low carbon agenda.
Leader of the Carbon Management and Sustainability Team at Independent Project Analysis Inc. in Ashburn, Va., Adi Akheramka works with Fortune 500 companies and energy, chemicals and mining owners and operators to assist in reaching emission reduction targets.
“This transition is definitely faster than any other transition the industry has taken up,” he noted.
From the business side, many oil and gas companies are working to incorporate greenhouse gas emissions as a key performance indicator, Akheramka said. They are defining transparent corporate strategies with net zero targets and altering their investment portfolios accordingly. They are setting goals for individual projects and sites using tangible metrics, which help assess the competitiveness of their decisions, predictability and uncertainties.
“This is a high-level framework for how companies are approaching decarbonization,” he said. “The decisions are not new. What is new is the lens of GHG performance to portfolio optimization, a new lens of reduction of emissions inside the portfolio level. That is really what is changing as oil and gas companies are responding to this transition.”
Carbon capture, utilization and storage are critical tools in companies’ portfolios today for CO₂ removal, he said.
“A lot of oil and gas companies are investing in them, but there aren’t many large-scale operational projects in the world – I think the last count is around 22,” he said, noting that CCS and CCUS projects are complex to develop, shape and operate.
“Those really are the opportunities for us young professionals to solve and help accelerate their deployment in all sectors,” Akheramka said.
While he emphasized that effective CO₂ injection and storage is essential for enhanced oil recovery and long-term sequestration, many risks remain unknown.
“Understanding the complexity of the reservoir, identifying activities to mitigate risk and uncertainty, and operating a CO₂ project – these are things we are all still learning as an industry, and there are not decades of knowledge to help us. Preliminary analysis shows that most projects fail because of injectivity issues,” he said. “This is what young professionals need to work on.”
For some with petroleum geoscience backgrounds, their focus remains on Earth science, yet they are looking to take their budding careers in the direction of sustainable energy.
“Sustainability has always been at the core of what we do as geos,” said AAPG Sustainable Development Committee Member Julian Chenin, a Houston-based geophysical data scientist with Bluware. “It was never an add-on, it was never a secondary consideration. It is already ingrained in every practice that we do on a daily basis.”
Chenin outlined the many fields open to those who have knowledge and experience with rocks, the subsurface and water management.
He noted that wind farms require a certain amount of geoscience expertise. To better understand the hazards of wind farm sites, geophysicists are needed to acquire and interpret seismic data, which, in conjunction with machine learning, can help identify friction ratios and shallow hazards so that windfarms can be safely installed.
Furthermore, as CCUS takes off, geoscientists’ skills are fundamental to making carbon storage safe.
“It’s the same pore space, but it’s merely a different gas. Citing a study by Haagsma et al. in 2020 in which core cuttings and CT scans were analyzed by neural networks,” Chenin said secondary porosity was able to be mapped for a better understanding of pore space to effectively store CO₂ and the implications of containment.
“Whenever we are exploring and trying to find the next big basin, the key thing that comes back is, what is the containment risk? What are the migration pathways?” Chenin said. “Those are the same concepts that are being applied within the CCUS space.”
Geoscientists interested in critical minerals – such as lithium and nickel – for energy storage might be attracted to the field as a resurgence in gold comes into play, Chenin said.
“Gold will be very essential in our society going forward. It’s a highly efficient conductor and resistant to corrosion,” he explained. “As we become an increasingly digital society, gold is going to play a large role in that.”
Chenin cited a study by Zhou and co-authors in 2021 explaining how machine learning and data science are helping geoscientists identify ore bodies that contain critical minerals.
Geothermal energy is becoming an area of interest for geoscientists, especially with the advent of enhanced geothermal systems.
“It’s still the same pore, but now we are looking at water and how it flows through,” Chenin said. Geoscientists are in high demand to identify porous and permeable formations for such resources.
Citing a study by Bredesen and co-authors in 2021 that is linking geothermal aquifers in Denmark to the country’s district heating network, Chenin said geoscientists are using their skillsets in seismic interpretation, reservoir characterization and inversion workflows to better understand the rock responses in order to identify optimal geothermal reservoirs.
Other geoscientists are looking at sourcing fresh water as a new area of interest. “We are really ingrained in understanding how the Earth works. Water is the new oil,” Chenin said. At present, studies utilizing GIS and remote-sensing data are improving the mapping of freshwater prospects.
“While I have been hearing lately how much the industry is changing, at the same time it seems the underlying concepts are still there,” Lankford-Bravo noted. “It is an innovative, dynamic industry that professionally and successfully finds solutions to one of the world’s leading problems and recognizes that we have a future in that. And, really, that takes us enjoying our field and continuing to follow our passions as scientists and really be a part of that.”