Visiting the 23rd World Petroleum Congress

Energy solutions for the future and scenarios for the energy transition

For the first time since 1987 the congress returned to the energy capital Houston. Stefanie Säfken from the Institute of Subsurface Energy Systems was on site for the TU Clausthal and the German Society for Petroleum and Coal Science and Technology (DGMK). As the second German representative, she is now part of the World Petroleum Council Young Professional Committee (WPC YPC) together with Dr. Ana-Luiza Lücke (ExxonMobil and Alumna of the Clausthal University of Technology) in the new cycle until the 24th Congress in Calgary, Canada in 2023 . The World Petroleum Council (WPC) is an non-advocacy, non-political panel that was founded in 1933 with the aim of promoting the sustainable management and use of the global petroleum resources for the benefit of all. The central medium is the World Petroleum Congress, which takes place every three years and addresses central issues of the industry and their social, economic and environmental effects. This report provides insights into the central topics of the last congress and summarizes current trends and challenges in the oil and gas sector.

Due to the pandemic, the congress took place a year later than planned and with significantly fewer participants. Although the entry restrictions for foreign travellers were relaxed a month earlier, many participants were still unable to travel to the USA. Therefore, the program was partially adapted during the congress and one or the other contribution was included as a video recording. Nevertheless, over 5 000 participants from over 70 countries travelled to Texas from the 5th to the 9th of December. With a valid vaccination certificate and the hygiene concept implemented on site, an almost smooth process with personal exchange between the participants was possible. There were exciting plenary lectures and discussions by and with executives from the industry, ministers from various countries, academics and young talents. In addition, poster contributions, workshops, a huge exhibition area with its own program and leisure activities for social networking accompanied the congress.

Oil and gas as part of the solution?

The congress reflected the current social and political conception for the desirable future energy supply: innovative, sustainable and diverse. In the public image, however, a different view is usually represented, as it was clearly evident at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) a month earlier in Glasgow: a world without oil and gas with little scope for other options. This seems the only way to successfully mitigate global warming and the impact of climate change. However, such a scenario is not realistic or feasible for every country, as there is often a lack of basic infrastructure and other premises or financial resources. In addition to many experts, representatives from various countries warned that the COP26 agenda would significantly increase the energy poverty of some countries. Ironically, most of the countries affected are those countries with sufficient potential for economic and the associated social upswing by utilizing their oil and gas reserves. Natural gas is often mentioned here, because of all fossil fuels it is the most efficient and low-emission source of energy. Due to this and some efforts to replace energy generation from coal with energy from gas, the demand will increase significantly in the coming years. By replacing coal with natural gas, the USA was able to reduce its CO2 emissions by around 3% in 2019, and China is also making increasing use of this strategy. In the transition phase, natural gas is therefore a reliable energy source with the potential to meet the world's increasing energy demand without any further increase in CO2 emissions.

Instead of restrictions, flexible and regionally adapted solutions, investments and innovative technologies that also enable and promote sustainable oil and gas production are needed. This sounds like a contradiction at first, but there are already concepts for integration into a circular economy and methods such as carbon capture and storage and/or utilization (CCS or CCU) to reduce harmful emissions like those of CO2 and methane.
In this context, companies have to see themselves less as oil and gas suppliers, but primarily as energy suppliers. However, it is not forgotten that some of the fossil resources are further processed into petroleum-based products. The refineries will have to optimize some processes for the increasing share of their sales to the petrochemical industry, others may become obsolete. The catalytic cracking of heavy petroleum fractions, the incineration of unusable fractions to generate heat, as well as C2C methods (direct conversion of crude to chemicals) are shaping the future everyday life of refineries. The inclusion of such methods and possibilities in already existing processes today will prepare refineries for possible scenarios that this energy transition can bring.

In order to sustainably meet the ever increasing demand for energy and raw materials in the face of climate change, a high degree of diversity is required. Both in energy supply and in the rest of the petroleum processing industry.

With diversity and digitization at all levels to success

Many companies in the oil and gas industry are already adapting to this trend and have either included renewable energies in their portfolio or expanded it with energy technologies with low CO2 emissions. This is not only important for reducing the impact on our climate, but is also of relevant economic importance. In the current rapidly changing energy landscape, companies can no longer be sure of their classic role and are increasingly confronted with uncertainties with regard to the stability of the oil price, national and international political agendas and interests, and the increasingly difficult to plan oil demand. The last year demonstrated this with the sharp fall of the oil price and the challenges posed by the Corona crisis. The unpredictable development in the trading of emission certificates or the taxation of harmful emissions are also detrimental to planning security. A diversification of their assets can keep the economic position of a company stable and is also important in other areas, which we will go into in more detail later when discussing the role of young talents and retaining employees.

In order to mitigate the most urgent problems of the industry, namely the energy transition, the change to NetZero and the consequences of permanent or temporary skills shortages, digitization must also be pushed forward. This is not limited to am office workstation with mobile work, document sharing, cloud data storage or virtual conferences, but includes the entire route from the oil field to the production of the end product and can also go beyond the boundaries of a company. Real-time analysis, data processing, global data management and digital security are essential for the industry of the future. From the direct interaction with the worker on the oil platform using virtual reality head sets or the global satellite-supported monitoring of methane leaks, the exhibition booths of the congress offer a wide range of options for integrating new digital technologies. This way the necessary transformation of this industry can be managed in a period of years or decades that otherwise might would takes a century or more.

The young generation as the driver of change

Other pillars of this change are new innovations and fresh ideas from the minds of young talents. Here, too, communication with the public and academic institutions needs to be intensified, since the generation that is most confronted with the consequences of climate change and other societal and social problems are the employees and leaders of tomorrow. The industry must learn to take the concerns and needs of this target group seriously and to offer solutions in order to maintain the flow of young professionals into the industry. This can be clearly seen in the results of the 2021 Global WPC Youth Survey in the run-up to the congress. Of the respondents aged under 35 only 59% could imagine working in the oil and gas industry for more than ten years, 12% less than in 2008, the year of the first survey. The motivation for working in the oil and gas sector has also changed: While the prospect of working in a globally networked, multicultural and highly technology-based branch of industry were the main reasons for employment in the past, today it is the rapid advancement opportunities and high starting salaries. From today's perspective, the oil and gas industry therefore serves more as a springboard for the careers of many graduates, which jeopardizes the long-term employment of specialists and leaders. An increasing number of respondents thinks that oil and gas will not play a major role in the future energy landscape of the next 40 years, or will even become completely superfluous thanks to renewable energies. Nevertheless, a clear majority of 85% is convinced that they play a key role in current climate protection efforts. However, they also assume that it would be within the power of the oil and gas industry to contribute significantly more to reduce CO2 emissions and promote the energy transition. After all, most of them are very satisfied with the design of their workplaces and particularly the handling of flexible work options in times of the pandemic, so that employers are perceived as quite attractive. You can read more about this and other interesting questions addressed to the more than 5 600 respondents from 112 countries in the 2021 Global WPC Youth Survey.

Another strategy in career management and the promotion of young talent is diversity and inclusion. It is shown that diverse teams with active integration are significantly more productive than those who do not draw any potential from such a combination of people with different areas of experience, working methods and solution strategies. One focus here is on women who, according to the current report by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) Untapped Reserves 2.0 -- Driving Gender Balance in Oil and Gas, are still significantly under-represented, a fact that has been evident since the first survey in 2017.

Thus, in addition to their reputation, companies are also required to design their workplaces in order to be able to rely on a broad talent pool. In addition to diversity, the continuation of flexible work models, as they have been established at an accelerated rate in the pandemic, equal pay and benefits, as well as further training opportunities and career promotion are demanded for an attractive working environment and employee loyalty. The psychological health at the workplace, actively responding to the needs of workers and constant exchange promote an atmosphere of trust and respect.

In summary, there are not only politics and other external influences that are driving the transformation to Net Zero, but it is also a necessity so that the influx of skilled employees does not run dry and the industry persists. The participants in Houston were sending a strong signal to the world that the industry is aware of the challenges ahead and its responsibilities. It shows how the oil and gas industry can and wants to be part of the solution. It is therefore not surprising that the 24th Congress 2023 in Calgary, Canada, will take place under the title "Energy Transition - The Path to Net Zero.

More Information:

Institute of Subsurface Energy Systems
Stefanie Säfken
Telephone: +49 5323 72-2449

Members of the WPC YPC coming together in Houston for the first meeting of the new cycle. Pictures by David Lankford-Bravo and Stefanie Säfken.