As geoscientists try to determine their future roles in the oil and gas industry as well as in the energy transition, some discover that there is a solid bridge between the two in a doctoral research and training program in the United Kingdom.
GeoNetZero, the abbreviated name for Geoscience and its Role in the Low Carbon Energy Transition and Challenge to Address Net Zero Emissions Targets, is part of the UK’s Centre for Doctoral Training program. The CDT is led by professor John Underhill and was established in 2014 to help train geoscientists through a partnership of universities and industry for today’s energy challenges. It is funded by the Natural Environmental Research Council, part of the UK Research and Innovation national funding council.
The CDT program is the only training and research entity included in the North Sea Transition Deal, which has made it possible to offer postgraduate students 20 weeks of bespoke training accredited by the Geological Society of London and delivered by world-leading academics, training providers, policymakers, regulators and industry practitioners.
“The unique training program serves to impart knowledge and train students during the course of their PhD research studies, giving them greater bandwidth and making them more employable by the industry, academia and in government when they complete their studies,” said Underhill, executive director of the GeoNetZero CDT and Interdisciplinary Director for Energy Transition at Aberdeen University.
The UK government recognizes the “huge appetite” for a model of combined research and training, Underhill said. As such, it has pledged to work with the CDT so more students can benefit and bring their expertise into the workforce to address the low-carbon energy transition, extend the production life of the North Sea by overseeing the repurposing of existing infrastructure, and ensure that the basin attains its net-zero emissions targets.
The GeoNetZero program not only attracts the next generation of geoscientists, but draws working geoscientists from their current jobs in the industry with the appeal of applying their skills toward the energy transition.
Students undertake a wide-ranging curriculum that includes the conventional study of oil and gas, unconventional sources, gas storage, decommissioning, carbon capture, utilization and storage, geothermal, wind, tidal, solar, nuclear and hydrogen-based systems – but also covers economics, regulation and the social license to operate.
To date, GeoNetZero has recruited and educated more than 170 students. Of the 70 who have completed their doctorates, all have gained employment in a relevant geoscience discipline, which Underhill considers an “enviable record.”
“The success means that the program continues to attract extremely talented individuals,” he explained.
Furthermore, more than 40 percent of students are female – a healthy gender balance that compares favorably with industry numbers and suggests the program is seen as genuinely inclusive, he said.
‘Oil and Gas Professionals Needed’
Martha Gutierrez, a former geologist with Shell, left her position to attend the GeoNetZero program and pursue her interest in carbon capture and storage at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland.
“I believe that CCS is a crucial technology that should be deployed in large scale in a relative short timeframe in order to offset industry CO2 emissions,” she said. “I do think that oil and gas professionals are better placed to help on this journey, as it needs a very detailed analysis of the subsurface, and this is what geoscientists and reservoir engineers have been doing for decades to exploit hydrocarbon reserves.”
She chose the GeoNetZero program in part because it gave her insight into other facets of the energy transition.
“Another important aspect of the GeoNetZero program is to acquire knowledge in other topics beyond your topic of research by the comprehensive training program and networking that we develop in our PhD community,” she said. “I’ve learned about geothermal energy, critical mineral resources as well as the social and political aspects of the energy transition.”
Gutierrez pointed out that the $125,000 research grant students receive can be used for a wide range of purposes, from training to conferences to facilitating research.
“It is an enabler for many of the researchers and it gives a sense of ownership for the PhD project, as you have a certain degree of freedom for the direction that you want your research to go,” she said. “It is to help the researcher achieve more than they would if only limited to their university resources.”
Iain de Jonge-Anderson, who completed his doctorate in the characterization of unconventional gas resources and participated in the GeoNetZero’s predecessor, the CDT in Oil and Gas, now holds a postdoctoral research position at Heriot-Watt University looking at the carbon storage potential of the highly prospective gas-prone Permian (Rotliegend) sandstones in the southern North Sea.
“The program caught my eye because of the applied nature of the PhD projects and the high-quality training academy,” he said. “The CDT also supported me in joining the exploration geoscience team within Capricorn Energy for three months, enabling me to apply my geoscience skills – including some aspects of my PhD research – within an industry environment. The experience was hugely insightful, particularly in that it allowed me to further appreciate how exploration geology fits within an E&P company’s operations.”
He added that the training program has been invaluable in his career.
“There are aspects of the training academy that I apply to my work regularly, from technical skills in geospatial and quantitative analysis to communication skills in the writing of academic papers or presentation material,” he said. “The program also provided me with access to a wide network of industry and academic experts – many of whom I remain in contact with.”
Public and Private Sector Investment
The CDT was originally led out of Heriot-Watt University and is now based at Aberdeen University. It was awarded $3.6 million by the NERC in 2013 after a competitive bid process, Underhill said. That amount was quickly matched by the university partners, adding $7.2 million of their own funds in the form of four-year doctoral scholarships. Industry was “so impressed” by the commitment and the model that they stepped forward and committed $386,000 each year to support the delivery of the 20-week, bespoke-module training program, Underhill said.
A second award of $3.1 million in 2019 led to a further $3.1 million of matched funds from 12 universities. This means that the CDT is the only government-funded scheme that was extended and is self-sustaining, Underhill explained. By the end of 2019, the CDT was worth nearly $21 million.
The GeoNetZero program also allows students to address and integrate key technical, regulatory and social science themes relevant to hydrogen and nuclear waste storage, wind power and geothermal energy, Underhill added.
“The research projects and accompanying training program have continually adapted to face the evolving oil, gas and energy transition landscape,” he explained. “We have seen it evolve from a more traditional – seismic, well- and core-based – program to one that includes all aspects of the renewable energy industry.”
Understanding that the oil and gas industry will continue to play an important role in the future, de Jonge-Anderson explained that fossil fuels still account for a significant portion of the energy mix.
“Weaning ourselves off this dependency in a way that does not lead to immediate economic hardship for consumers will take time and careful management,” he said. “Further exploration and production will be needed to meet this demand and facilitate a smooth transition moving forward. In addition to this, the sector has amassed a huge knowledge base in subsurface engineering that has applications to low-carbon energy projects including carbon storage, hydrogen storage and geothermal energy. A lack of investment and support for the oil and gas sector might lead to these skills being lost at a time when such low-carbon projects are being ramped up.”
Gutierrez added, “We need to continue to push for new investments and policy decisions by governments on renewables while oil and gas producers need to make efforts to make their operations greener. The latter is where CCS and my role in the energy transition comes into play.”
Knowing that the future of energy is rapidly changing, Underhill said that universities are trying to reposition their courses to face the challenge inherent in the energy transition and be more attractive to students.
“It’s a competitive field and many students have been asking themselves, ‘Where does the geoscience degree lead me to?’” said Underhill. “If they could see that the skills we have developed in oil and gas exploration or mineral exploration can be used for a different purpose and that that will help the planet, we have a chance there – a window of opportunity to realize that geoscience is a very attractive career option.”