EAGE 2021 | First Impressions

Another hybrid global conference, another patchy online experience, but a welcome return to face-to-face interaction.

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Following only three weeks after the IMAGE21 collaboration between the SEG and AAPG in Denver, the rescheduled annual EAGE conference kicked off this week in Amsterdam. According to the opening session notes, about 3 000 attendees are evenly split between in-person and virtual participation. Given there are more than 1 400 presentations, a large proportion of registered participants are presumably speakers.

Welcomed Innovations for Remote Attendance

For those following remotely, although the online portal is considerably more elegant and navigable than that used recently for IMAGE21, the first full day of presentations was a mixed bag of bandwidth connection issues, absent speakers, and variable sound levels. Nevertheless, the availability of short preview video summaries for several talks is a welcome innovation, and I would happily follow two days of ‘geophysics speed dating’. Frankly, most presentations can be distilled into a five-minute version anyway. None of the ePoster sessions and none of the workshops are accessible for virtual participants. Hopefully, future hybrid conferences learn how to make everything accessible for everyone.

Aside from the intellectual stimulation of the vast technical programs, the great attraction of these global conferences to me is the special forum panel discussions. There are rarely other opportunities where several industry leaders from competing companies can speak candidly about the burning issues that affect us all. Accordingly, the opening session featured a debate titled “Energy Transition – Will great expectations be realized?” that was hosted by the ever-reliable Andrew McBarnet. Before I capture some elements of the four-way panel discussion, our industry is witness to several disruptive shifts: a generation of careers significantly impacted by years of jobs cuts, a global decline in available university geoscience courses, the so-called digital transformation affecting all professions, and the rising movement against fossil fuels being driven largely by net-zero ambitions and concerns about climate change. The EAGE has correspondingly prioritized three themes that will benefit its 19 000 members: The Energy Transition, Digitalization, and Career Development & Talent Acquisition (with sub-categories of student activities, mentoring, and lifelong learning).

EAGE Prioritizes the Most Pressing Themes Facing the Industry at Large 

In a nutshell, the energy transition was stated to have in fact been ‘energy addition’ so far, driven by the fact that about half of the world still exists in ‘energy poverty', and so significant amounts of affordable energy is yet to be accessible to those without the luxury of being able to choose their ‘energy lifestyle’. For example, the non-OECD countries require about 2.5 times their energy available today to reach parity with OECD countries.

Regards oil consumption, it was noted that the Covid-19 pandemic reduced global daily consumption by about 9 million barrels in 2020, will be about 6 million barrels less per day in 2021, and still be about 4 million barrels less per day in 2022. Nevertheless, oil consumption is expected to increase in 2045 to about 17 million barrels per day above 2019 levels, despite a much broader mix of energy sources being available. Coal will expectably be the biggest loser. Our planet requires huge energy growth coupled with significant decarbonization.

A key recurring theme in coming decades will expectably be *more disruptions, uncertainty, and volatility driven by regulations* in energy markets. As we have already seen this year, it has not taken much to increase gas prices to about $200/barrel in oil terms, despite gas supposedly being the freely-available ‘transition fuel’. It was emphasized that energy production is hardware-driven, and therefore any change in global energy supplies requires considerable capital effort to implement.

Rather than obsess on how fast renewable energy alternatives to fossil fuels can be implemented, the global focus must be on how to decarbonize *the full system* of energy solutions. Three key technologies are apparently most critical, ignoring the long-standing ‘Black Swan’ option of nuclear fusion: carbon capture (both from the atmosphere and from industrial activities), hydrogen (preferably green hydrogen), and large-scale energy storage (on a scale able to support large cities for days or weeks during energy supply interruptions). There is no question that the scale of these ambitions is vast, so a clear need exists to set shorter-term interim goals that map out the global journey to goals in 2030 or 2050. Net-zero goals today are unlikely to yield demonstrable progress without realistic and regular milestones.

The Future of Geoscience Relies on Career Accessibility and Development 

The session closed with the question of what we should suggest to future geoscientists: Is there a future for geoscience? The brief summary above clearly points to many complex problems in the ‘future energy landscape’ that must be solved, including many challenges not yet appreciated, and most necessitating considerable multidisciplinary integration. Most pursuits will demonstrably be of enormous benefit to our global ecosystem, and particularly for the billions of people who inhabit developing regions.

So we can promise that the (collective) energy industry will offer highly technical and beneficial global opportunities to those suitably skilled and motivated. However, lifelong careers are probably a thing of the past: as mentioned, there are declining university entry points for traditional geoscience careers, and new university pathways are not being created to meet the likely demands of future careers. Of the three key EAGE themes, I suggest that ‘Career Development & Talent Acquisition’ will be the most critical.

It was also (rhetorically) asked whether the oil companies should bear responsibility for subsidizing the anticipated higher costs of renewable energy, which is an unfortunate reminder of how short-sighted the energy transition discussion has already become in the mass media. The true scale of changes required needs to be communicated to all global inhabitants, otherwise, today’s gas prices in Europe and rolling power blackouts in China will be a drop in the ocean…