Experts discuss the digital transformation of the oil and gas industry

Digital is becoming the way to go. Photo by Towfiqu Photography, Getty Images

With the disruptive challenges the energy industry faces on a daily basis, the need for digitization has never been more apparent. In "Bits, Bytes, and Barrels: The Digital Transformation of Oil and Gas," authors Geoffrey Cann, retired partner at Deloitte Canada, and Rachael Goydan, Deloitte Consulting LLP managing director, analyze the current landscape for digital technologies in the energy business.

In this Q&A, we will get an exclusive peek into some of the key themes that Cann and Goydan discuss throughout their book, touching on the barriers to digitization and all that it can offer to the energy industry.

Amy Chronis, Houston managing partner, Deloitte LLP: What exactly is digital, and is the definition changing over time?

Rachael Goydan: Simply put, digital is comprised of three elements: data, analytics, and connectivity. It could be anything from a smartphone, computer, or car to a refrigerator or doorbell. Digital objects have the ability to generate data and do analytics and computations. They also have to be connected with other devices to be considered a digital object.

We have been seeing exponential growth over the last 5-10 years in terms of what digital is capable of, and what that means to the energy industry. Digital is constantly evolving, and its impact may even be different tomorrow. In oil and gas, there are now more ubiquitous forms of unstructured data being used, such as sounds, vibrations, or photographs. It has become relatively inexpensive to have computing power on a device and the accessibility of programming languages has grown.

AC: Digital has disrupted other industries, but is disruption possible in oil and gas?

Geoffrey Cann: There are many digital concepts that can disrupt business in oil and gas. Much like the cloud car and designer fuel, which allows consumers to pick their fuel origin, the use of artificial intelligence to interpret streaming data from cameras could introduce truly robotic eyes on oil and gas assets 24/7. Historically, the oil and gas industry has been change-averse, so the timing and size of the impact is expected to vary by sector.

Our research has found that technology suppliers, service providers, and retailers may be affected the most by digital disruption. Explorers and producers may be affected less, as their business is often already driven by data. The midstream segment has heavy assets running 24/7 that are hard to take offline, and they cannot add new technologies easily. The impact they feel will likely be less than tech companies.

In resource value, digital has already begun to disrupt. For example, some companies are using high-definition photography to take pictures of drilling cuttings, which are then pieced together via cloud using artificial intelligence and machine learning. These drilling cuttings can have one million times better resolution than with seismic.

AC: I've heard you speak about digital in oil and gas in the past, and you frequently say that digital isn't about the technology but about how people work. Could you give some examples here?

RG: Leaving digital to chance doesn't work. Companies may benefit from having information technology professionals bring expertise, cybersecurity, corporate infrastructure and assets, a help desk, virus detection and remediation, and so on. Companies may also benefit from having operational technology people, who have knowledge of the facilities, contributing a solid understanding of the sources of change resistance and how to address them. These groups will work together with the business. Some companies even have a separate digital team that helps them with change management, using a clean sheet of paper approach.

Companies also may need to recognize that there are different ways of working. Agile methods are how digital gets done versus the waterfall method. They are almost opposite ways of doing work with different speeds. Digital requires some companies to change the way they do things. Changes are to happen on a monthly, weekly, and even daily basis.

AC: Is it true that digital in oil and gas has as much potential as in other industries?

GC: Companies in upstream oil and gas are now being valued more on cashflow than traditional reserves valuation. At its heart, digital is about efficiency, which is top of mind for a lot of clients as well. To give the best return to investors, oil and gas companies may need to consider focusing on efficiency and productivity rather than focusing on reserves growth.

Oil and gas has the opportunity to tap into a key feature of the digital world: an ecosystem of resources that includes incubators, university labs, accelerators, and startup groups. Our research has shown companies in oil and gas are much less tapped into this new community of digital innovation. Because digital changes so rapidly, the industry may benefit from plugging into the existing ecosystem to take advantage of the skillsets and capabilities that are out there.

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Just after announcing an investment from United, NEXT Renewable Fuels Inc. scored a SPAC-based IPO. Photo via nextrenewables.com

It’s been a momentous month for Houston-based NEXT Renewable Fuels Inc.

On November 15, United Airlines Ventures announced an investment of up to $37.5 million in the next-generation, low-carbon fuel producing company.

Just a week later, the company revealed it’s going public through a SPAC merger with Industrial Tech Acquisitions II Inc. The deal, expected to close in the second quarter of 2023, assigns a $666 million equity value to NEXT. The publicly traded company will be named NXTCLEAN Fuels Inc.

NEXT, founded in 2016, produces low-carbon fuels from organic feedstock. The company plans to open a biofuel refinery in Port Westward, Oregon, that’s set to start production in 2026. The refinery could produce up to 50,000 barrels per day of sustainable aviation fuel, renewable diesel, and other renewable fuels.

“West Coast states are demanding a clean fuels conversion of the transportation and aviation industries with aggressive targets necessitating rapid increases in clean fuel supplies,” Christopher Efird, executive chairman and CEO of NEXT, says in a news release. “[The company] is advancing toward becoming one of the largest U.S.-based suppliers of clean fuels for these markets, and is investigating and pursuing potential vertical expansion into other clean fuels.”

The proposed public listing of NEXT’s stock on the Nasdaq market and United’s investment are poised to help NEXT reach its goal of becoming a leader in the clean fuel sector. United’s investment appears to be the first equity funding for NEXT.

“Right now, one of the biggest barriers to increasing supply and lowering costs of sustainable fuel is that we don’t have the infrastructure in place to transport it efficiently, but NEXT’s strategic location and assets solve that problem and provide a blueprint for future facilities that need to be built,” Michael Leskinen, president of United Airline Ventures, says in a news release.

United’s investment arm, launched in 2021, targets ventures that will complement the airline’s goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

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