Sustainability and the Role of Petroleum Engineers

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There are many definitions of sustainability, but the 1987 United Nations Brundtland Commission’s remains a standard.

“Meeting the needs of today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (WCED 1987)

Some think oil and gas have little role in a sustainable ­future; global realities suggest otherwise. How is it that a finite energy resource and a source of greenhouse gas emissions can be part of a sustainable future? Oil and gas are ­essential to meeting the “needs of today;” their prudent use is the safest way to ensure we do not compromise the “ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The Society of Petroleum Engineers Board of Directors adopted the following definition of sustainability in 2014:

“Exploration, development and production of oil and gas resources provide affordable energy that contributes significantly to well-being and prosperity.

SPE encourages the responsible management of these oil and gas resources and operations including the appropriate management of social and environmental impacts and their related risks.

SPE demonstrates this commitment by offering its members opportunities to train, share knowledge and advance practices for doing business in ways that balance economic growth, social development, and environmental protection to meet societal needs today and in the future.” (SPE 2014)

Petrowiki also has an excellent discussion of sustainability at, including references to noteworthy papers from

Safe, affordable energy is central to quality of life. It is essential for farmers to be able to produce sufficient food; for the transportation of this food to consumers; and for housing, heating and cooling, clothing, and all other necessities of life. Quality of life is strongly correlated to energy use.

Supplying energy for the world is a monumental task. There continue to be improvements in renewable energy sources; however, reasonable forecasts of growth in renewables suggest fossil fuels will remain the primary source of the world’s energy for decades to come. Only radical growth in nuclear power could seriously diminish this result. The realities reflecting public concerns over nuclear safety and proliferation of radioactive materials make such growth unlikely.

While coal resources are abundant, concerns over greenhouse gas emissions and the possibilities of pricing carbon through taxes, caps, exchanges or other mechanisms, and the relatively low cost of natural gas, continue to make natural gas a more attractive fuel. This is true whether you expect it to be a relatively near-term “bridge fuel” to a renewable future or (as I do) part of our longer-term energy solutions.

If oil and gas are to be part of a sustainable solution to our energy needs, there are some things we can and should do better as petroleum engineers.

Minimizing methane emissions. It is important to reduce or eliminate leaks and incidental releases of methane since, on a pound-for-pound basis, methane has a 25-times greater impact on climate change than does CO2. Natural gas and petroleum systems account for 29% of all US methane emissions. Domestic livestock and associated manure management account for 36%. Landfills and coal mining combined account for another 28%. In total, methane accounts for 10% of US greenhouse gas emissions (EPA 2015a). Methane emissions associated with natural gas and petroleum systems have declined significantly from 1990. In spite of substantial increases in natural gas production from 2005 and widespread growth of pipelines and processing facilities, the decline in emissions has continued (EPA 2015b). We must continue this progress and eliminate fugitive emissions of methane associated with oil and gas production, transportation, and processing. There will be a role for drones and other technologies in improving monitoring and early detection capabilities.

Reduce or eliminate flaring. Flaring should be infrequent, temporary, and efficient. Technologies to make flaring highly efficient are available and represent best current practices. Long-term flaring of volumes of gas that cannot be (easily) sold needs to be eliminated globally. This goal may require commitments to gas reinjection, local use, local power generation, local compressed natural gas manufacturing, or other innovative solutions. Regulators need to set aggressive but technically achievable standards and timetables. Regulatory agencies should focus on the largest problems first and use a balanced approach. Operators need to develop fields with the goal of eliminating flaring in mind. Unconventional (tight oil) operators in areas without low-pressure gathering systems will need to develop many-well drilling pads enabling sufficient volumes of natural gas to be used locally or otherwise exploited. In such cases, gas represents a secondary product so regulatory and taxing bodies should preferentially treat developments that use semicommercial volumes of gas rather than flaring it.

Energy efficiency and conservation. We should support energy efficiency measures. Such measures make most sense when they have a reasonable economic benefit. The current price environment makes it more difficult to justify such measures, whether they involve a homeowner installing additional insulation or an airline purchasing more fuel-efficient airplanes. Government subsidies for such efficiency-improvement measures may make sense when widespread adoption of a marginally commercial solution will lead to cost reductions or significant improvements in the required technologies. Conservation measures imply a change in consumer behavior rather than just an improvement in efficiency. The current product price environment is less likely to encourage conservation efforts whether it is in transportation, recreation, or other decisions. Government actions mandating conservation efforts may be viewed as heavy-handed. The “carrot” approach is more likely to achieve results than the “stick.”

Wellbore integrity. Wells completed with casing, liners, and cement prevent migration of fluids from one zone to another. Such integrity is vital to minimizing the likelihood that hydrocarbons or salt water might migrate behind pipe and contaminate other formations. Casing collapse, casing leaks, and inadequate primary cementing or deterioration of cement must be avoided and technologies implemented to ensure wellbore integrity. Cement-job design including spacers, quality control during implementation, and long-term monitoring ensure that desired fluids are produced and all other fluids stay in place. Advances in fiber-optic monitoring technology such as distributed acoustic sensing may be useful for monitoring critical wells.

Reducing surface footprint. When many wells need to be drilled, drilling from a central wellpad or cluster reduces surface footprint, minimizes transportation disruptions, and allows produced or flowback water to be used more effectively. It is also easier to operate and leads to shared use of production facilities and commercial use of small volumes of gas. Many individual unconventional wells are not commercial, even if the combined results of all wells drilled is economic. Many individual hydraulic fracture stages do not appear to contribute measurably to flow. Engineers must collaborate with earth scientists, petrophysicists, geomechanics professionals, service providers, and others to eliminate the need for unnecessary stages or wells. This will improve economic returns, lower the demand for water, and minimize all other environmental impacts of production.

Elimination of spills. Whether a surface spill during oilfield operations or a catastrophic blowout, consistent planning, use of best available technology, and flawless execution are keys to eliminating spills. Eliminating small spills is good business. Eliminating large spills may mean staying in business. Blowout control eliminates spills and saves lives.

Optimized field development and management. An asset team working on simulating reservoir performance and designing an optimized plan may not think of their work as contributing to sustainability. But the reality is that almost everything we do as petroleum engineers contributes to sustainability. Can we recover the most barrels with fewer wells? Can we invert the waterflood injection pattern and lower total fluid handling requirements? Can our well monitoring plans identify damaged wells early and allow them to operate at maximum efficiency? As we drill, complete, equip, and produce wells more efficiently, we are further contributing to sustainability. We make it possible to meet the world’s needs today and improve people’s lives by providing safe, affordable energy. The more efficient we are the more affordable that energy becomes.

Many oil and gas companies voluntarily issue a sustainability report (IPIECA 2015) and similar measures are in place for service companies and others. The real measure of our role in sustainability remains our individual commitment to doing the right job and getting that job done right. As I travel throughout the world, I am more convinced than ever that we as an industry, and as SPE members in particular, are committed to improving today’s quality of life, but not at the expense of the generations to come.

For Further Reading

EPA. 2015a. Overview of Greenhouse Gases–Methane Emissions, (accessed 28 December 2015).

EPA. 2015b. Inventory of Greenhouse US Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990–2013, (accessed 28 December 2015).

IPIECA. 2015. Sustainability Reporting, (accessed 28 December 2015).

Mascarenhas, A.M. and Sutherland, J.J. 2015. What Is All This Talk About Emissions? J Pet Technol. 67 (11): 23–25.

Rassenfoss, S. 2015. Pressure to Reduce Methane Emissions Highlights the Need for Better Monitoring. J Pet Technol. 67 (3): 46–52.

SPE. 2014. Building a Better Professional, Industry, Community. Society of Petroleum Engineers Annual Report, Richardson, Texas, USA. (accessed 23 February 2016).

The World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). 1987. Our Common Future. Oxford University Press.

Sustainability and the Role of Petroleum Engineers

Nathan Meehan, 2016 SPE President

01 April 2016

Volume: 68 | Issue: 4

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