The Offshore Technology Conference isn’t the sort of gathering that’s prone to introspection. It’s primarily a showcase for the industry’s latest gee-whiz technology, after all, and the side conferences tend to be more echo chamber than a critical assessment of the energy industry’s shortcomings.
This year, though, for OTC’s 50th anniversary, the tone of the conversation, like the industry itself, is changing. Nowhere was that more obvious that at OGV Energy’s Business Breakfast. Two topics dominated the panel discussion — energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables and the need for companies to change their cultures to become more diverse, more responsive to employees and consumers, and to ensure their operations are “intrinsically safe.”
In fact, the panelists all agreed that issues of corporate culture, safety, talent acquisition and technological change were all related.
Even smaller independents are working to brand themselves as socially responsible, said Roderick Larson, President and chief executive officer of Oceaneering. While technological innovation has traditionally driven many of the changes in the industry, companies ignore changes in public sentiment at their own peril, he added.
To attract young talent, energy companies need to think about what a new generation of worker looks for in an employer.
“We are struggling to get talent into the oil and gas industry,” said Steve Hamilton, technology manager for XODUS.
The technology that attracted people to the industry even a decade ago no longer has the draw it once did. Energy companies are competing with high-tech enterprises and Silicon Valley startups for the brightest young minds. The transition to renewables excites young talent in today’s job market far more than traditional oil and gas technology.
“The young people that are coming into the industry will have these transformative skills that are going to help us change,” Hamilton said. “It’s really important that an organization embraces this change and that we sell this transition as a way to the future.”
If young people don’t believe the industry supports the transition to renewables, then it will become increasingly difficult for companies to attract talented new hires, Larson said. “They’ve got to believe we are not working against renewables or what comes next in energy,” he added. “Because otherwise, this industry is going backwards by 2025 or 2030. That’s within their career. So if they believe we’re the buggy whip manufacturers of the modern age, we’re not going to get them.”
It’s not just the type of work, but also who’s doing it that will play a significant role in future recruiting.
“If we don’t look at diversification, not just in gender but also in geographical, we will fail,” said Thomas Sunde, vice president of technology for Subsea 7.
Hiring alone won’t draw more young people to the business, said Proserv CEO David Currie. Given the competition for talent, companies need to be more aggressive in promoting based on competency. If prospective employees see an opportunity to advance rapidly, they are more likely to join a company, he said.
While the industry is dealing with changing talent, it also must embrace changing technology. Larson pointed to the auto industry as a cautionary tale. A decade ago, its biggest worry was how to make cars better. Today, the industry is wrestling with automated vehicles, the switch to electric cars, and the growing role of ride sharing, which threatens the nature of automobile ownership.
“The only thing that you can count on is that [change] is going to go faster than you thought,” Larson said, adding that the industry needs to get in front of these changes and talk about energy’s role in addressing pressing global issues such as population growth and quality of life. The message the industry should send is: “More energy — cleaner and safer — will make a better world.”
Even now, the industry has the ability to bring incremental energy online faster than renewables can grow, and that can be delivered to remote parts of the world to improve development and raise living standards. The problem is, energy companies need to do a better job of getting that message out, the panelists said.
“As an industry, our failures are public, but our successes are private,” Hamilton said. “We have to change the public perception.”
That’s not easy when the industry supports the Trump administration’s efforts to expand offshore drilling in the U.S. while scaling back regulations enacted after BP’s 2010 Macondo disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Any time there’s a perception that there’s less focus on safety, it deserves more scrutiny,”
“If there’s any indication that we’re going backwards, it’s going to be bad.”
Hamilton agreed, adding that “It’s up to us to demonstrate to the public that this is a safe industry.”
The future of energy production, like many other industries, will be defined by automation, as more operators look to reduce their carbon footprint and improve safety, Larson said. The industry will need better batteries, improved connectivity, machine learning and augmented reality as it makes the transition to the future.
One example of this new, low-carbon future is Baker Hughes’ announcement in early May that it would use excess natural gas from its wells to power turbines at the drill site for running hydraulic fracturing equipment.
With limited pipeline capacity for moving gas out of the Permian Basin, the so-called electric fracks reduce the need for flaring of natural gas and lower carbon emissions at the well site. It will also improve efficiencies, reducing the amount of equipment and people needed for each well, the company said.
Another example is remotely-operated vehicles with greater range than current models. For example, Oceaneering is developing a charging station, capable of holding 10 drones, that can be dispersed remotely along the entire Norwegian coast to meet customer demands as they arise. “That technology is sitting on the floor of OTC today,” Larson said.
The key, all the panelists agreed, is finding the best path toward more digitization without compromising the safety of rig workers, the public or the environment.
Whilst it was just one panel among dozens at the conference, it was refreshing to see an open discussion about the need to make energy companies more diverse and to embrace changes that the industry has long tried to ignore.