Part 1: Reaching sustainability through innovation and permission

John Westerheide's picture
John Westerheide, Program Manager – Energy Systems & Reservoir Performance, GE Global Research
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We at GE Global Research regularly have a healthy debate around the future of energy, and where we have landed is that all energy options are needed and have a seat at the table. It is also clear that hydrocarbons, especially natural gas, will continue to be a main source of energy, fueling our cities, industries, and economies, well into the future.

In North America, we are in what many are calling “the Age of Gas.” Thanks to unconventional resource breakthroughs, we have more access to natural gas than thought possible just a few years ago. This is a good thing as natural gas is the perfect fuel for integrating with renewables to prevent power disruptions associated with the intermittent nature of solar and wind. It is also the cleanest burning fossil fuel available. It is a low-carbon way to help transition to energy solutions that aren’t dependent on fossil fuels.

While North America is experiencing an abundance of natural gas, we are also seeing a global shift in the societal conscience on energy development and use. This evolving shift increasingly places a premium on low-carbon and no-carbon forms of energy.  We talk a lot about the benefits of natural gas as a low-carbon fuel, but if that natural gas does not make it to the burner tip, it is then a very potent greenhouse gas much worse than CO2. Those of us who work in this industry need to understand evolving societal perceptions and the complexity of the entire value chain from production to use, and then consider how we can ensure natural gas’s beneficial role in the global energy mix and economy for decades to come.

I should tell you that my perception of the oil and gas industry as a job creator and economic growth engine may differ from yours. I grew up in Oklahoma and worked in Texas during the first part of my career. However, regardless of our personal experiences and viewpoints, it’s evident that perceptions of our industry are not always based on fact. Community – or social – perceptions usually have a direct correlation to the industry’s ability to gain permission to develop resources profitably. This has been specifically highlighted as the potential development of unconventional resources, such as shale, begins to expand globally outside of North America. As perceptions about our industry evolve globally, we must understand that without permission, even the best and most profitable oil and gas plays may be unrealized because access becomes too costly.

The issue deserves our attention. The oil and gas industry has traditionally focused the majority of its attention and resources on the things that reduce costs and improve operational efficiency, and this has been the aim of most of the technological breakthroughs of our industry for the past 100 years.

While we continue moving forward with technologies to accomplish this, I believe we also need to devote time and resources to develop technologies and business practices that will allow us to gain and keep the “social license to operate.”

How do we begin the conversation? In Part 2 of this article, I will explain that we can use technology and innovation as a starting point and build from there.

This is part one of a two-part article, the second half will be published shortly.

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