Sustainability Now: Uncovering the Triple Threat Potentials for the Energy Sector

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By Tony Purcell

November 12, 2021

As a self-confessed “Rockhound”, I remember growing up in the ‘70s when the word ‘fossil’ conjured up images of dinosaurs and cavernous museums. As a boy, I would hike over outcrops, a geo-pick in hand, hoping to uncover a fossil lying amongst the rocks. The 1980s managed to put a watch and leather bag company around the ‘Fossil’ name, making it a bit trendier and more interesting. But for me, it was always about the hidden fossil ‘treasures’ just beneath the surface.

Nowadays, attach ‘Fossil’ with the word ‘Fuel,’ and the connotation is very different and often negative. The shift of society’s collective view towards climate change has severe ramifications for Oil and Gas/Energy organizations. While a complete and immediate shutdown of fossil fuel production is neither practical (nor feasible), the die has been cast for fundamental change in our energy source choices and use.

Global abandonment of coal use is probably the most likely short-term ‘zero’ action but would need LNG and natural gas supply to offset. This transition is already underway and has an expected 40% reduction in CO2 equivalents. Not unexpected, if you consider coal has 139-240 carbons in its empirical formula. LNG, as methane, has 1 carbon. You do the math.

So rather than assigning ‘zero’ activity targets for the Oil and Gas sector as an immediate future, it is more effective to explore and assign what steps the industry can take to reduce emissions, operate cleaner and demonstrate the highest technical capability of efficiency, and positively contribute to overall sustainability objectives.

And the sustainability initiatives by energy companies have exponentially grown in the last 20 years, with increasing pace in the last 5. You only need to view the 2020 keynote addresses of energy CEOs to see the headline impact of sustainability efforts. In short, the energy industry is acutely aware of the need for real and measurable sustainability to grow as a baseline KPI.

KPIs, in this sense, are falling into two camps. Firstly, those that speak to sustainability action, such as renewable energy development programs. The second group are programs that can be measured, recorded, and tracked. Carbon neutrality, greenhouse gas (GHG) and CO2 Equivalent (CO2-e) Emission Targets are all data-based and lend themselves to show pattern and progress. The fact that these terms are now part of the common vernacular is no accident and underline the importance of a common language to define the rate of change. Additionally, most targets are listed as ‘future speak’ objectives, to be achieved in 5, 10 and 20 years. That underlines the BIG challenge that Oil and Gas face, in major short-term shift and direction. It takes time. The primary difficulty lies in that production methods, systems and production facilities are the primary contributors to these carbon and emission targets. By definition of their size and maturity, they are hard to change easily and quickly.

But in reality, the Energy sector currently has access to technologies and material sciences that can make a meaningful impact on these target-based KPIs, in the short term (1-5 years). In fact, they are probably using them now in upstream/midstream/downstream locations, but perhaps not in the way (or to the degree) that they potentially could. The ‘Big Picture’ of future speak can overwhelm the review of current practices and historical specifications. As often happens, when you search the horizon, you miss seeing what exists right under your nose.

The first step in accessing these ‘Sustainability-Now’ technologies is to classify and rank them by the categories in which they can be deemed as potent and positive “Triple threats” for use. These three criteria are:

  1. Easy to Adopt: The technology must be able to be incorporated with minimal impact to current operations and production and ideally without lengthy downtime. In this case, it’s all about the time.
  2. Easy to Justify: The technology must pay its own way. In short, the industry can ill afford to adopt sustainability-now materials and technologies that don’t provide cost savings or return-on-investment (ROI) in line with best business practices. In this case, it’s all about the money.
  3. Direct contribution to target KPI reduction. Last on the list but actually the core feature. When the use of a technology or material science can be shown to reduce energy usage, reduce waste, enhance uptime (therefore less shutdown emission events), and improve recovery and re-use of existing consumables, then its benefit can be measured and recorded. That data can then be driven into the overarching KPI methodology of carbon and emission target reduction and tracked as an improvement towards the longer-term goal initiative. In this case, it’s all about the numbers.

Sounds too good to be true? It’s not. The Oil and Gas industry has developed many new systems, more efficient than the conventional process, yet with a sustainability edge. Upstream has seafloor processing systems (simplified re-injection), midstream have small mobile gas plants (rapid deployment, low impact) and downstream has biological sulphur recovery, and biodegradable water processing (low impact environmental), just to name a few.

And surprisingly, insulation has become a perfect triple-threat sustainability tool. The development of the aerogel insulation technology in the early 2000s by Aspen Aerogels, had instant benefits for Oil and Gas plants wishing to reduce insulation thickness (for clashes) and minimize or eliminate corrosion under insulation (CUI) in key hot zones. It was adopted and used in a considered and focused way versus traditional insulation materials.

What the industry has ‘discovered’ over the last 20 years is that Aspen’s form of insulation has the following additional benefits:

  • Thinner, easier-to-apply, weather-repellant Aspen materials can be used anywhere, at anytime. Reduced time impact for installation and no seasonal restrictions.
  • Aspen materials reduced heat loss and recovered energy. It sustains cryogenic liquids (less boil off) in storage and transportation. It maintained steady-state processes, despite the seasons, giving greater production returns. The ‘investment’ could easily be recognized in terms of ROI and total-cost-of ownership calculations. In short, a positive monetary impact.
  • And it has significant sustainability credentials. Aspen materials can be reused multiple times (much less waste), can be applied in greater thickness within set boundaries (even greater energy recovery), reduces the need for extensive maintenance and inspection (longer run-times, less emissions) and helps protect metal against corrosion (mature plants last longer, and don’t have to be replaced).

The global conversation around climate change and the future energy mix has a competing environment of mid-term /long-term industry and government objectives versus that of the backdrop of society’s increasing desire for immediate change. The reality belongs somewhere between these two drivers.

Notwithstanding government initiatives and incentives, the Energy Industry has access to current and underutilized technologies that will help them along their way to greater social acceptance in this conversation. Some have been uncovered, some just under the surface, some others yet to be found.

A bit like all other fossils, really.