Can the oil and gas industry become more sustainable?

For decades, humanity has relied on the oil and gas industry, but things are slowly changing. According to Deloitte's 2020 Oil and Gas Industry Outlook mid-year report, weakening economic growth, trade tensions, and global political risks are the biggest challenges that the sector is facing. At the same, with increased awareness on the environmental impact of the oil and gas industry, company executives need to remain vigilant and consider two long-term interests: the interest of the planet, and the interest of people who have homes next to drilling sites.

Statistically, the oil and gas industry accounts for 42% of global emissions, and if they want to reach 2050 targets, they need to reduce emissions by at least 3.4 gigatons of carbon-dioxide equivalent. It's not an easy task and, to a certain extent, the association between sustainability and the oil and gas industry may seem unlikely. However, companies are facing increased pressure to move on from outdated methods and implement eco-friendly alternatives where possible. 

Moving drilling sites at least half a mile from homes

In the US, there is no federal standard for the placement of oil and gas drills, so no less than 17.6 million people live within one mile from a drill. Then, there are drills placed next to large buildings, such as schools and hospitals. For the people living in these regions, quality of life is a major concern: they're afraid of the health risks of exposure to dangerous pollutants, about the poor air quality, and about the resellability of their homes. Noise levels are also higher than normal next to fracking sites, with many people reporting that they can't even have a normal conversation in their backyard. Most drilling sites weren't there when they moved in; they were added later, and locals had no say in it. NGOs are currently trying to convince legislators that state and municipal setback distances should be established based on the immediate quality of life concerns. 

More transparency

The oil and gas industry is huge and, considering the recent controversy that it was involved in, it can only move forward by embracing accountability and adopting more transparent practices. People know how much oil and gas contribute to pollution, and it's normal for them to want to know how companies are attempting to fix that. For example, ExxonMobil and Pioneer have faced a lot of pressure for environmental groups on the topic of pollution, which is why they've started publishing sustainability reports since 2017. These reports include essential details such as carbon emissions, volunteering initiatives, and investments in the renewable sector. In the meantime, other companies, such as Shell and OMV, have also started to publish sustainability reports, and this practice has become the norm. The International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP), in collaboration with the American Petroleum Institute (API), regularly update their Sustainability Reporting Guidance for the Oil and Gas industry. 

Increased focus on recycling

Recycling has become increasingly popular all over the world. With awareness at an all-time high and many useful guides to learn from, the average individual knows that waste is harmful to the environment, that we need to stop relying on the landfill, and how to apply the reduce-reuse-recycle hierarchy in day-to-day life. As a response to higher public pressure, businesses from all fields have started to adopt more sustainable waste management measures and oil and gas are no exception.

Of course, recycling oil and gas byproducts is more complicated than recycling paper, metal, or plastic, but measures can be taken. For example, some oil and gas companies have started to use techniques that reduce the number of resources used during production and convert used oil into diesel. Or, they can use specialized equipment that reduces the amount of water they need. There are even biological alternatives such as iron-reducing bacteria, which allow water to be recycled. 

Giving back through volunteering

At present, it's impossible for drilling to be 100% green, and even companies that have the best intentions can't change their operations entirely. However, they can fix part of the damage caused by the oil and gas industry by volunteering in nature programs and giving back to the community. Thankfully, there are many ways to volunteer:
       Cleaning the ecosystem to enhance living standards for local communities
       Introduce renewable energy schemes
       Local wildlife projects to rehabilitate endangered species
       Initiating awareness programs   

Using technology to identify wasteful practices

According to a 2017 report, oil platforms were only functioning at 77% of their potential. Integrating analytics and other new technologies into their operations can not only deliver better performance but also identify the processes that produce the most waste and start thinking of solutions to fix them. For example, dedicated software can determine what processes can be carried out with fewer investments and resources, without compromising on quality. In the end, it's a win-win situation because companies in the oil and gas industry can manage to save money without contributing as much to pollution. 

Investing in renewable energies

Renewable energy doesn't produce greenhouse emissions and thus reduces air pollution. It also reduces dependence on fossil fuels, creates jobs, and empowers local communities. What does this have to do with oil and gas companies, which to some might seem like the complete opposite? Well, if we look at the sustainability reports of some of the oil and gas giants, we'll see that most of them have started to invest heavily in renewable energy. Considering its long-term potential, it's important to acknowledge it and sustain its development. This way, they are learning how to develop cleaner solutions themselves and contribute to the transition towards a safer, healthier planet.