Oil and clean aren’t two words you usually see together. The oil and petroleum industry has a reputation for being dirty — one of the biggest polluters and, overall, a threat to the environment. The reputation isn’t entirely unearned, as the industry is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.
But oil and gas executives are facing a crisis of reputation that threatens the future of the industry. Younger generations’ poor view of the industry makes it difficult to attract talented engineers. These threats to long-term profits have industry officials rethinking both their drilling methods and overall business strategy.
Now, the oil and petroleum industry is turning to new technologies that they hope will result in “clean” oil drilling — drilling that doesn’t produce nearly as much pollution or harm to the environment.
The Energy Market and “Dirty” Oil Drilling
Advances in oil drilling methods have traditionally focused on productivity, as you would expect. And most new developments are still about one thing: how to get more oil out of the ground while spending less money.
The latest advances could increase the world’s petroleum supply by up to six times the current stores. These advances have mostly been in extraction techniques like thermal injection, which is a kind of fracking. Fracking — many scientists contend — is pretty bad for the environment. Fracking chemicals can seep into the groundwater or escape into the atmosphere, and the fracking process itself can cause earthquakes.
A talent shortage and a crisis of reputation have led industry executives to realize something. Without some level of self-reform and environmental stewardship, the oil and gas industry will lose out on skilled workers, suffer protest from younger generations and generally have a harder time turning a profit — even if drilling technology advances spectacularly.
The workforce of the renewable and alternative energies industry is currently about five times larger than that of the combined fossil fuel industries. The oil and petroleum industry is facing a worker shortage. The fossil fuel market has been good for the past few years, but it is beginning to tighten. As a result, the industry is being forced to adapt.
What Is “Clean” Oil Drilling Supposed to Mean?
Some oil and petroleum companies are investing in renewables in the hope that by diversifying their portfolios, they can successfully navigate the new energy market. Others want to build a cleaner fossil fuel industry instead.
Enter “clean” non-renewables. The most famous is “clean coal,” but just about every non-renewable energy industry is pursuing some kind of clean extraction tech.
So far, the most significant developments in clean oil drilling have been in clean fracking.
One new advancement eliminates the need for water in the fracking process. Instead, fracking is achieved with a new process that uses hydrocarbons produced from extracted fossil fuels or as a byproduct of the fracking process. This change could make fracking more cyclical and sustainable in the long-term.
Water used in fracking generally can’t be reused. The use of water can also result in fracking fluid — a chemical mix that varies from operation to operation but almost always poses serious health risks — seeping into the water table. Hydrocarbon-based fracking fluid may be easier to recover and less likely to enter the water table. Water pollution is one of the biggest environmental risks of fracking, and reducing or eliminating it could be significant.
Another advancement is in fracking operations that use new, natural gas-powered engines. Traditionally, fracking operations have used diesel in their engines. By switching over to natural gas-powered engines, fracking operations could both reduce their emissions and cut fuel costs by up to 40 percent. These savings may mean this technology will be more rapidly adopted than others.
Other various developments include better plugging of methane leaks as well as construction and implementation of onsite wastewater treatment. Both should limit the release of emissions and push fracking toward becoming — in the best-case scenario — nearly a carbon-neutral operation. This is, of course, if you don’t account for the burning of the extracted fossil fuels.
Green technological advancements from outside of the fuel industry may soon be implemented into fossil fuel work sites. One example of these technologies is carbon capture and storage (CCS) systems, which capture emissions of carbon dioxide at the source or pull carbon dioxide from the environment. The carbon dioxide is then stored many miles underground.
And oil may not always be totally non-renewable. New developments in oil technology may eventually blur the line between renewable energy and fossil fuels. Chemically synthesized oil and petroleum is old technology — dating back to the early 1900s — but new advances could make these synthetic fuels competitive with extracted oil and natural gas.
New Clean Oil Drilling Techniques
Many other industries are successfully adapting to new technology, and readily adopting greener solutions. But in these industries — such as robotics, manufacturing and healthcare — green technology isn’t misaligned with profitability. In oil, well, it kind of is.
The adoption of clean drilling technology may be slowed by executives who are now choosing between higher short-term profits and the better reputation associated with cleaner drilling methods.
There is no such thing as totally green (or clean) oil drilling. Burning fossil fuels for energy will release greenhouse gases, even if the process of extracting that oil was carbon-neutral or negative. It’s not entirely clear what the future of clean drilling in the oil and petroleum industry looks like. But the pivot toward green technology seems like a good sign — even the “dirty” fossil fuel industry is responding to a new international attitude that prioritizes environmental stewardship and clean energy generation.