Online Exclusive: Advancing sustainability through digital technologies

Hydrocarbon Processing (HP) was pleased to speak with Ron Beck (RB), Marketing Strategy Director, Aspen Technology. The following Q&A provides insights on how digital technologies can enhance sustainability in the refining and petrochemical industries.   

HP: What are some key areas for improvement needed in the oil and gas industry when it comes to addressing greener operations/green futures?        

RB: Oil and gas companies, according to McKinsey and the International Energy Agency, account for 42% of global carbon emissions.  While only one fifth of that is from “direct emissions” (or what is known as Scope I emissions), most of the rest is from emissions from the remainder of the hydrocarbon value chain (or Scope 3 emissions). 

For scope one emissions, the industry is working on some key areas of improvement to significantly decarbonize individual companies and the industry in general.

One of the areas is in achieving better visibility and measurement of emissions and energy use, as well as transparency for employees, investors and the public. Across the oil and gas value chain, it is challenging to develop a true and evergreen profile of energy and water use, carbon emissions, and waste conservation.  This can and must be done, largely using digital technology.

Focused reduction of flaring and fugitive emissions is another area of improvement the industry is trying to address. Fugitive emissions, which largely are difficult to detect leaks throughout an oil and gas production system, and gathering and processing network, must be monitored and reduced.  Fugitive emissions constitute a surprisingly large percentage of the entire carbon emissions problem for oil and gas production.

Substituting energy sources for production, processing and transportation of hydrocarbons is another focus area. Significant energy is consumed during the process of producing and preparing hydrocarbon energy for sale. For example, a refiner may spend 30-50% of their processing costs on energy. Efficiency is required to reduce consumption of fuel and associated CO2 emissions. Also, the substitution of renewable electric fuel sources can also significantly reduce carbon intensity.

Addressing fugitive emissions is the one largest areas of impact oil and gas companies can directly achieve. But beyond carbon emissions, water use is another major sustainability area of focus for the oil and gas industry. In areas such as fracking, steam injection, water injection, EOR, and produced water, oil and gas companies are major targets for conservation to increase sustainable operations. More efficient management of oil and gas production can reduce water use many-fold, and much better technology for treating water can be attained. 

And finally, process safety is a third key area of sustainability focus. The oil and gas industry has always prioritized safety, but in this volatile economic environment, and with the need to provide worker safety by taking many out of production sites, there is a need to provide digital and intelligent systems that can monitor asset health and equipment integrity and identify safety risk situations remotely.

For scope three emissions, investments into research, innovation and provision of clean power generation, such as hydrogen-powered transportation and very high efficiency engines, is a key opportunity to reduce the overall impact of oil and gas.  Four-fifths of the impacts of the oil and gas industry on carbon emissions comes from the end use of the produced gas and oil. There is much that the oil and gas industry needs to and can do to invest in and drive innovation in the use of energy, through hydrogen cars, high efficiency engines, and high efficiency heat exchangers, as some simple examples

HP: How can organizations leverage technology to meet these sustainability goals?

RB: Technology can and will be leveraged heavily to achieve sustainability goals. Big data technology is crucial in providing visibility across an organization on performance against sustainability KPIs.  For example, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company implemented a digital twin, which leverages oil field data to provide a worker dashboard, indicating energy use and water use across a large production field at all times. This provides a management tool to understand the impacts of operating decisions on energy use, carbon emissions and water use.

Digital twins improve safe operations and reduce environmental emissions. One large offshore FPSO operator uses a digital twin to provide operator training of all types of operating incidents that could happen on board the production vessel.  Acting like a flight simulator, but employing process data and models, this simulator rehearses startup and emergency shutdown procedures to improve safe operations.

Prescriptive maintenance based on AI improves production field uptime and reduces safety and environmental incidents.  Another FPSO operator uses AspenTech’s Mtell machine learning digital twin, to provide advanced warning of asset and equipment health issues, preventing unexpected degradation of pumps and filters, ensuring the integrity of injection and produced water systems, to minimize environmental impact.

Additionally, advanced control, used for many years in refining and chemicals, is now being applied in upstream oil and gas. For example, ConocoPhillips and another major Alberta oil sands operator have both implemented advanced process control (APC) from AspenTech which has improved the efficiency of their heavy oil production operations, both by reducing energy use (and carbon emissions significantly) and by reducing water use extremely significantly (by eliminating wasted steam production needed for oil reservoir injection).

Process modeling and concurrent engineering to accelerate innovation of new sustainable processes, materials and products, including proving technical and economic feasibility, is another critical solution.  For example, several oil and chemical companies are using AspenTech’s Aspen Plus modeler to design several innovative technologies, including carbon capture technology, plastics recycling processes, and CO2 to chemicals conversion processes.

These are just a few examples of how technology is instrumental in helping oil and gas companies achieve sustainability goals.

Sustainability is about (a) knowing where your organization measures on a sustainability scale; (b) knowing what your options are to improve sustainability; (c) navigating tradeoffs; and (d) implementing strategies in a way that supports safety and profitability.

HP: What are the key performance indicators (KPIs) companies should focus on with their sustainability initiatives and why?

RB: Key performance indicators must be set and supported at the executive level of a company. It is more about the executive commitment and support than about the selection of specific KPI measurements. 

A key KPI will always be safe operations, as represented by zero incidents and zero discharges. Safety has always been an important industry metric, but it becomes a key baseline for sustainability. Incidents and emergency shutdowns can generate environmental emissions and discharges far more than any baseline asset emissions. Metrics can be enterprise wide, at the executive level, or specific at the operational level.

Operational metrics should be tied to specific actionable areas.  For example, metrics for energy use and efficiency, metrics for flare reduction, metrics for fugitive emission identification and reduction. 

Executive metrics should look at an enterprise-wide accounting of carbon intensity, water use, waste generation, and community impacts.

HP: How should organizations approach sustainability efforts? What are some best practices to ensure effective implementation?

RB: As mentioned above, sustainability begins from the top. The key operating executives should be committed to driving sustainability targets and organizational behavior.

Sustainability begins with the ability to measure a company’s performance today and progress going forward.  In the short term, an energy company can control and improve its scope 1 sustainability, direct impacts of energy resource extraction, production and processing. A company needs a clear baseline of what its sustainability footprint looks like today.

It begins with the UN sustainability goals and deciding which of those goals are relevant to a company’s performance. The next step is understanding the company’s profile today in those selected areas (such as energy use, or water use, or carbon emissions, or community impact).  The last step is selecting the highest impact areas where a company can make progress in a way that also supports the company’s profit and employee goals.

For a typical oil and gas company, energy use, water use, waste generation, and CO2 emissions can be easily profiled, measured, and projects can be defined with improvement targets. The advantage of these targets which are tied to product production is that sustainability progress can easily be tied to improved economic performance if the projects are designed correctly.  As obvious examples, energy conservation reduces OPEX directly, and redesigning processes to reduce pollutants or waste generation reduces the associated disposal costs. 

HP: What does the future of sustainability look like in the industrial world?

RB: The energy industry’s social “license to operate,” as defined by investor appetite to supply the industry with capital and consumer appetite to consume oil and gas products, will be increasingly determined by demonstrated progress in sustainability across several dimensions. Those companies that can embrace sustainability, building it into their corporate fabric and indeed making their companies more profitable through sustainable practices, will thrive in this future environment, in my opinion.

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