EAGE 2021 | Post-Show Review

Andrew Long shares insights from EAGE's special forums on the future of geoscience, noting the perception of our industry needs to change and truly reflect that geoscience will be part of the solution to climate change rather than the problem.

Accepting New Challenges at EAGE 2021

I mentioned in my previous post that the EAGE has prioritized three themes, one of which is ‘Career Development & Talent Acquisition’. The third and fourth forum sessions at EAGE 2021 titled ‘Role of Geoscience and Engineering in Meeting Decarbonization Goals’ and ‘Great Career Challenge – the Changing Education and Opportunities for Tomorrow’s Energy Professionals’, respectively, offered several insights worth repeating within and outside our industry.

The forum session on education and career opportunities probed quite deeply into myriad challenges confronting our profession, and the forum session devoted to decarbonization offered hope that solutions are already being found. One of the greatest challenges to the recruitment of a new generation of geoscientists and engineers is the disconnect between public perception of the oil and gas industry as a ‘sunset industry’ and our own views. On one hand, we need to be proactively engaged in transparent dialogue with opponents to our industry so that we better understand each other, but our industry still also needs to wake up to the true scale of its challenges. Arguments can be made that oil companies are not doing enough to develop the attraction of what our profession will be like in the future, and universities are not able to find answers to modern challenges without external assistance. The solutions are clearly broad collaboration between industry, academia, and community.

A Sunset Industry or the Dawn of a New Industry?

Why are university intake levels to geoscience so low? This has been a fundamental question for some time. Despite a general increase in overall university placements, geoscience numbers globally are declining—and quite dramatically in many countries. The reasons are many, from poor public perception of the environmental impact of the petroleum and mining industries, to how students are recruited, inadequate industry support and collaboration with academia, the mechanics of how universities operate, and the basic fact that our industry probably hasn’t worked out what skills should define a modern Bachelor’s-level geoscientist who will work in the energy transition era.

The challenge of the oil and gas industry perception in the community exists at several levels, compounded by the fact that there seems to be a cognitive dissonance between how many people speak within our industry environment, versus the general dialogue outside in the community. Too many skilled professionals have also been cast aside in recent years, and many are unlikely to champion their former careers as something young people should pursue. The same can be said for many early-career geoscientists. A point was made that our industry has too often failed graduating geoscientists by being passive and “just leaving when there is a crisis” (such as low oil price). More could have been done to recruit graduates through the volatile cycles. Being present and showing the industry cared would have avoided the many scars that now collectively deter new students from believing that somehow things might be different in the future.

More broadly, the perception of our industry needs to be as the ‘energy industry’ or the ‘energy transition industry’ rather than ‘oil and gas’; that geoscience will be part of the ‘solution’ to climate change rather than the ‘problem’; that understanding the subsurface is critical to decarbonizing our planet; and it needs to be communicated at the high school level that whereas the energy industry is currently dominated by fossil fuels—for good reasons—the future is clearly going to be different. No amount of PR can change some long-held perceptions of the oil and gas industry, but a transparent dialogue between all stakeholders must be developed, and we cannot shy away from community opposition or uncertainties. Universities believe they will hurt themselves by trying to fix the gap in public perception, so we need to help them to help us.

Collaboration and Diversity: Change at Many Levels

New models for collaboration between industry, academia, and the community are required to promote the geosciences and engineering as offering noble and creative solutions to global challenges, and that roles in energy transition are an arena where students can find interesting and diverse opportunities. Collaboration is also required to encourage universities to develop the skill sets we need—when we understand ourselves what they might be.

Greater workplace diversity is a high-profile ambition everywhere, and an inescapable factor that also influences the perceptions of potential future geoscientists. It was mentioned that ‘diversification’ is not simply about gender or age balance, however, the development of greater diversity in all forms involves several challenges to western academic systems that are not necessarily obvious. The issues are too many to discuss here, but the point is that the global nature of energy transition necessarily demands a willingness to truly engage different cultural norms—something the EAGE is of course well placed to assist with. In short, future geoscience education needs to be more multidisciplinary, modular, embrace digitalization in its many forms, and more dynamically engage industry, academia, and community across our planet.

A Successful Case Study in Doing Things Better

In the forum session devoted to decarbonization, John Underhill, a professor from Heriot-Watt University, highlighted the achievements of their GeoNetZero CDT. The Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) entitled GeoNetZero is a new program of PhD research and training set up to address key areas in Geoscience and their role in the Low Carbon Energy Transition and Challenge of Net Zero. Their achievements point to a sustainable future in geoscience education.

The original NERC (Natural Environment Research Council) CDT in Oil & Gas had 128 PhD students enrolled, of which over 60 have graduated, and all have found employment in a relevant discipline. The GeoNetZero CDT currently has an additional 30 students and will build to 48 PhDs when they recruit the third cohort to start in Q3 2022. Significantly, the PhD research is supplemented by a 20-week Geological Society-accredited training program that is funded by 8 large oil companies. The research and training includes low and high enthalpy geothermal, critical minerals and sustainable mining, nuclear waste disposal, wind power, oil and gas (inescapably part of the energy mix), gas storage, CCUS, hydrogen, and so on. Two relevant references worth reading are ‘Geoscientists for the Energy Transition’ and ‘Geoscience is vital for meeting Paris Agreement obligations’.

As John said in his forum session, this is actually an exciting time for geoscience and engineering. Earth Science has been instrumental in documenting climate change and is also now pivotal in finding the solutions that address it. Geoscience and engineering are absolutely vital if we are going to meet the obligations embedded in the Paris agreement, and practitioners shouldn’t be painted as part of the problem, but rather as part of the solution.

From a career development perspective, skills in geosciences will be critical if we are to characterize the subsurface and manage it in the energy transition. Our traditional perspective driven by oil and gas exploration, however, must be somewhat revised. Whereas reservoir characterization has previously considered issues such as source rock maturation and trap integrity, we are now thinking about critical risk factors such as geomechanics and the seal integrity of the container. Can we safely store CO2 or hydrogen in the subsurface? How do we do the forensic work to find the correct sites for these pursuits?

John also paid tribute to the EAGE for supporting near-surface geoscience over a long period where it was the ‘poor cousin’ to mainstream oil and gas. This balance is now rapidly changing as the near-surface is absolutely critical for looking at potential leakage pathways above carbon storage sites, looking at areas to put safe foundations for wind power, and so on.

Thriving in a VUCA World

We all now live in a VUCA world: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. What is normal today may be quite different in a couple of years. It is correspondingly difficult to specify what the exact roles in the energy industry will be, but there will definitely be geoscience and engineering roles in the energy transition. Those of us in mid-career roles fully appreciate how a culture must be developed for continuous re-skilling and up-skilling, and if such a culture can truly and transparently be communicated to the next generation, people will more likely adapt to a direction that is purposeful to them. The viewpoint (from the oldest panel member) was given that the younger generation is more agile and not expecting long-term surety in the manner that we were, so the inability to map out career paths is not necessarily a hindrance. Nevertheless, the youngest panel member expressed a desire to receive space for trial and error in their career: the opportunity to try something different at times, and have the opportunity to come back.

Flexibility, Versatility and Adaptability

The greatest change affecting all science and technology careers in recent years has of course been the application of data skills and digitalization. Not everyone wants to become a data scientist, and it was noted that some students have historically chosen the geosciences because they felt mathematically or computationally inept. This is probably yet another motivation for the energy industry to collaborate better with universities and even high schools to demonstrate how empirical and digital skills can be applied, and importantly, how cross-disciplinary skill development can be a feature of a career in the energy industry.

Reskilling of existing professionals is clearly about being adaptable and versatile, and although online platforms such as LinkedIn are full of posts announcing the completion of various learning modules, there are not enough formal guidelines to help people identify what modules are most appropriate for their individual skillset. Clearly a big role for societies like the EAGE to play. The good news is that skills in understanding the subsurface are transferable, so re-skilling and up-skilling for mid-career professionals is not necessarily going to be too disruptive.

Overall, exciting opportunities and challenges are available—and not necessarily bound to traditional oil and gas companies. This is a double-edged sword, for although oil and gas has something of an identity problem, there has nevertheless always been a general belief that other geoscience careers are too often underpaid, even more unstable, and lacking opportunities for career growth.

The vision painted for the future energy industry has to be backed by substance, otherwise these are all empty words. A few large oil and gas companies are clearly creating legitimate growth opportunities in transition, and are able to find young ambassadors to speak optimistically about their career expectations. To achieve the incredibly ambitious decarbonization goals being made by regulators everywhere, the world must motivate, recruit, train, and develop many thousands of young people still in high school (or younger). The collaborative initiatives shown by Heriot-Watt University and their many academic and industry partners needs to be the start of a revolution. In the meantime, let us focus on repairing our own community and finding employment for those already skilled and qualified. Hanging on in quiet desperation cannot be the industry way for much longer.