In recent years, the U.S. oil and gas industry has – somewhat like a teenager – gone through some growing pains. The combination of 3D seismic with horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in shale formations has been a boon to oil and gas production, but the process itself and the rate of growth in production has at times seemed a bit wild and wooly, particularly to those outside the industry. However, amid increasing public scrutiny and voter referendums, and calls for greater safety, the industry faces what could be a period of reflection as it charts a path for sustainable growth in the coming years.
The industry faces a number of challenges that can and must be overcome to keep the momentum going. Water issues, including both the amount of water used in drought-prone areas, as well as the disposal of flow-back from fracking and the amount of truck traffic taking water to the drilling site; setbacks from residential areas; increasing public concern regarding air and water issues; a move toward a younger, more diverse workforce as older workers retire from the industry; the changing geopolitics regarding trading partners that is a direct result of the country’s increasing energy security amid record and near-record production levels; growing the energy infrastructure and refinery capabilities to keep up with this increased production – these are just a few of the myriad challenges to be met as the industry moves further into the 21st century.
The energy industry is already at work on each of these issues, but more remains to be done. An unprecedented amount of collaboration between academia and industry is underway in an effort to develop a pipeline of students well-versed in science, technology, engineering and math – the STEM disciplines – and therefore ready to step in to industry positions in the coming years. Meanwhile, more senior and experienced workers are being prompted to stay on as mentors to this new group of workers. But the industry must become more open to diversity to fill the number of positions created by growth in the industry, and by retiring workers.
While communication efforts to those outside the industry have improved, the industry could do a better job of communicating with the public regarding setbacks and other issues of importance to citizens in developed municipalities. There continues to be misinformation from both sides, resulting – in some instances – in outright bans on fracking that might or might not be permanent.
To be sure, a reliable, affordable and sustainable source of energy is necessary to maintain the lifestyle that much of the civilized world currently enjoys. Projections by most thought leaders suggest that fossil fuel will continue to be the main source of this energy for many years. As Dr. Vladimir Alvarado, associate professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the University of Wyoming recently told Rigzone, we do not want to go back to a time when we did not depend on fossil fuels in our everyday life. However, as Alvarado also said, more than the least necessary must be done to maintain sustainability and to leave as small a footprint as possible. Today’s students, who will be tomorrow’s energy industry workers, must think in terms of their community and the environment in order to maintain the current growth in the industry.
Leaders within the oil and gas industry can and must be proactive, anticipating resistance ahead of projects, and then make efforts to get the word out about not only the necessity of the industry’s end-use fuels and products, but also the beneficial aspects of a robust energy industry working with enlightened community leaders outside the industry in ways that serve both the people of the community, and the industry itself.