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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Building Houston

 
 

5G could be taking over Texas — and Houston is leading the way. Photo via Getty Images

Based on one key measure, Houston sits at the forefront of a telecom revolution that could spark a regional economic impact of more than $30 billion.

Data published recently by the Texas Comptroller's Office points out that as of last November and December, Houston led all cities in Texas for the number of so-called "small cells." Small cells are a key component in the rollout of ultra-high-speed 5G wireless communication throughout the Houston area and the country.

As the Texas Comptroller's Office explains, small cells are low-powered antennas that communicate wirelessly via radio waves. They're usually installed on existing public infrastructure like street signs or utility poles, instead of the big communication towers that transmit 4G signals.

The comptroller's tally shows Houston had approved 5,455 small-cell sites as of the November-December timeframe. That dwarfs the total number of sites (1,948) for the state's second-ranked city, Dallas.

"Houston is in the vanguard of small cell permitting in Texas, and not just because it's the state's largest city; advocates have lauded its proactive approach to 5G. Other cities, particularly smaller ones, are lagging well behind," the Comptroller's Office notes.

According to CTIA, a trade group for the wireless communications industry, 5G holds the promise to deliver an economic impact of $30.3 billion in the Houston area and create 93,700 jobs. The group says industries such as health care, energy, transportation, e-commerce, and logistics stand to benefit from the emergence of 5G.

"Maintaining world-class communications infrastructure is a requirement for success in a rapidly changing global economy. Small cells and fiber technology are the key foundational components for network densification and robust 5G. Cities like Houston that have embraced the need for this infrastructure will see the benefits of 5G faster than others," Mandy Derr, government affairs director at Houston-based communications infrastructure REIT Crown Castle International Corp. and a member of the Texas 5G Alliance, tells InnovationMap.

Derr says leaders in Houston have embraced the importance of small-cell technology through "reasonable and effective" regulations and processes aimed at boosting 5G capabilities. Three major providers of wireless service — AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon — offer 5G to customers in the Houston area.

"More small cells and fiber provide greater and faster access for the masses, enabling the connectivity that is essential to our businesses today — whether it's accepting payments on a mobile card reader, completing a sale on the go, or reliably reaching consumers where they are," Derr says.

In a blog post, Netrality Data Centers, which operates a data center in Houston, proclaims that Houston is shaping up to be a hub of 5G innovation.

"Houston has always been on the frontline," Mayor Sylvester Turner said during a 5G roundtable discussion in 2019. "It is who we are. It is in our DNA. We are a leading city. We didn't wait for somebody else to go to the moon. Or to be the energy capital of the world. Or the largest medical center in the world. But you don't stay at the front if you don't continue to lead."

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