eavesdropping in houston

Overheard: Houston energy experts share how tech and startups are affecting the industry

How is technology affecting the energy sector? These experts weigh in. Getty Images

Last week, Houston-based Pink Petro hosted its annual conference — but, quite like other events across the country, it took a very digital approach.

Energy 2.0, formerly called HerWorld, was always going to be streamed from two locations — Denver and Houston — but the conference, which took place from March 9 to 11, likely had more digital attendees than previous years thanks to the rising threat of COVID19, or the coronavirus.

The digital shift was pretty on par with the conversation of the "unconference," as its called. The last panel of March 10 was how tech was rattling the energy industry. Three panelists discussed the effect of technology on the industry, climate change, startups, and more. Here are some of the panelists best points made during this event.

“Technology isn’t new to the energy sector. The energy sector is used to adopting and adapting to new technologies. What we are talking about now is digital technology, and what’s happening there — we are not familiar with that.”

Geeta Thakorlal, president at Worley Digital. It's not innovation that's unfamiliar to energy companies, but the digital aspect, which includes introducing new tech from outside the industry. "When you talk about adoption and use of digital technology, it means different things to different people," she adds.

"We’re taking a look at technology, but also addressing the people [aspect] — looking at what people are doing with technology and how the social issues are impacted by technology."

Jennifer Hohman, CIO and vice president, at Seadrill. The conversation started with a broad scope on how the energy industry is approaching technology, and Hohman cites climate change and sex trafficking — two issues the industry has been affecting.

“As society is changing, we start to worry about people’s safety — that’s very natural in our industry, but moving that into what about social issues or even renewables."

David Reid, CMO of National Oilwell Varco. Reid adds that the energy industry is aware of its role in the world and has a people-centric approach to technology, including being aware of how it affects the people involved in the energy company's supply chain. "I think it all ties together."

“Technology is constantly going to move fast — we have to continue to face that.”

Hohman says on the energy industry adapting to technology, adding that tech allows for more collaboration — something energy companies should be doing, even if it means collaborating with a competitor.

"What the tech sector has done is actually helped energy industry because they challenged all these norms — diversity of thought, fail and fail fast — you don't use that language in the energy sector."

Thakorlal says, explaining that influences from the tech sector have been crucial. Ultimately, big tech companies are looking to small startups for innovation, and energy companies will be doing more of that as well. "The tech companies have had to learn it's not they who has got the solutions, and the energy sector has learned that too."

“We’ve got a world that wants a change, and does not know and understand what we’ve done.”

Reid says on the topic of the energy industry's role in the future of the sector. "What's missing is the potential of our industry to make a difference."

“The biggest barrier to advancing technology is fear — people not really understanding. Fear is a choice.”

Thakorlal says, adding that fear is a choice companies can make — but shouldn't. Instead, they should maintain their business while simultaneously adopting tech that will be key in the future. "We say in our organization that if you talk about energy transition or digital transformation in our sector, it's not an 'either/or' it's an 'and.' We have to keep doing what we are doing and transition that to what we want the future to be."

The oil and gas industry has been hit by a trifecta of challenges. This local expert has some of his observations. Getty Images

In the matter of a few weeks, COVID-19 disrupted life across the globe, but the oil and gas industry was hit especially hard with the triple impact.

First, there was the direct impact of COVID-19 on the workforce. Next, there was a dramatic drop in global demand as countries and cities around the world issues travel restrictions. Finally, there was a global increase in oil supply as OPEC cooperation disintegrated.

As energy companies raced to set up response teams to address all three concurrent issues, something that no one was quite prepared for was the speed at which all direct lines of communication for the industry were shutoff. Seemingly overnight, industry conferences and events ground to a halt, corporate offices were reduced to ghost towns, and handshakes were replaced with virtual high fives.

To fill this inability to interact, connect, and collaborate as we used to, my company, Darcy Partners, stood up a series of executive roundtables for the exploration and production community to come together and share ideas on how to approach this unprecedented series of events.

Each week, over 25 executives from various oil and gas operators (and growing) gather virtually to share best practices around COVID-19 response plans, discuss the broader impacts of the turmoil on the industry and learn about innovative technology and process solutions others are implementing to help mitigate the impact of the virus and associated commodity price volatility.

We've seen the priorities of these executives shift and evolve with each phase of COVID-19 and the market impact. In early discussions, the main focus was on taking care of their workforce and what plans were being instituted to help minimize the disruption to operations while also ensuring that no one was exposed to any unnecessary risks. Participants shared best practices and policies they had in place for communication both internally and externally as well as their transition to work-from-home.

At later roundtables, the discussion turned to commodity prices and market response. Although this industry is quite accustomed to the inevitable ups and downs, this time is notably different. The market dynamics during this cycle are far more pronounced than in past downturns – largely due to the concurrent supply and demand imbalances coupled with the broader economic uncertainty. Most operators are taking action by making cuts, and some have already decided to shut-in production. Additionally, the importance of technology and innovation came to the forefront, whether discussing tools to facilitate working from home or remote operations to ensure the continued safe operations in the field.

The future is largely unknown; all of the information and analytics and millions of outcomes being modeled do not create the full picture needed for leaders to make the difficult decisions that are necessary. But there are a few things we know for sure. First, there will be an oil and gas industry on the other side of the current turmoil. Secondly, technology will play an increasingly important role going forward. And, finally, the complex issues the industry is dealing with today can be more effectively understood and managed by coming together to share ideas and best practices.

Nearly 5 years ago, Darcy Partners was founded on the premise that there was a missing link in the oil and gas Industry for the adoption of new technologies. Today, there is a missing link for an entirely different reason. Darcy Partners has rapidly mobilized our vast network of operators, technology innovators, investors, and thought leaders to come together and create a shared level of certainty, in an entirely uncertain world. To help leaders make the decisions that must be made and prepare for a new future, one that might not have been expected, but one that the industry will evolve to succeed in.

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David Wishnow is the head of energy technology identification and relationship management at Houston-based Darcy Partners.