The Energy Transition Offers a ‘Bright Future for Geoscientists’
April 2022 Jane Whaley, Associate Editor and Energy Writer at GeoExpro Magazine
As seen in AAPG Explorer April 2022
Max Brouwers is an experienced geoscientist who spent 25 successful years working around the world for Shell, including as head of global exploration, planning and strategy and later as vice president for exploration in Latin America. About six years ago, he became increasingly aware that climate change was a powerful force and began looking at the significance of the approaching energy transition, particularly for geoscientists.
“At that time, energy transition and digitalization were being touted as the two mega-forces that would shape our lives – which has turned out to be very true!” he explained. “I was concerned, like many other geoscientists, that there would be no job for me in the not-so-distant future due to the gradual shift away from oil and gas, so I began to look into it further,” he said.
Discussing the Future
Brouwers learned that AAPG was developing a conference to address the role of geoscientists in the expected energy transition.
“I realised that I did not know enough about the subject, so when I was asked to get involved, I jumped at the opportunity to learn more,” he said.
Brouwers was chair of the first AAPG Energy Transition Forum, entitled “A New Era for Geoscience,” held in Amsterdam late in 2018. This proved so successful and informative that the AAPG held another session the following year, this time focused on “A New Era for Geoscientists,” for which Brouwers was once again chair.
“In face of the huge opportunities and uncertainties ahead, geoscientists need a suitcase full of skills to be ready to travel across disciplines and across the value chain,” he said at the time.
After a hiatus during the pandemic, he is now preparing to chair the 2022 forum, which is a joint enterprise between AAPG and the Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain and will be held in London May 19-20 and entitled, “Pathways for Geoscientists in a Net Zero Future.”
I asked him what he thinks has changed since the last meeting three years ago.
“I think the energy transition has only accelerated further,” he replied. “At the first two forums there were still a lot of question marks, especially as to whether there really was a future role for geoscientists. Things have been moving fast, and now I can identify four main areas that will require geoscientists, in order to make them successful. All four are crucial to transition to a low-carbon world.”
Multiple Roles for Geoscientists
“The first is carbon capture and storage, which may be closest to the traditional oil and gas disciplines, particularly the storage part, which is all about fluid flow through wells and in reservoirs,” Brouwers explained. “It requires regional geoscience skills to identify and prioritize potential CO2 storage sites, as well as detailed, field-specific, integrated evaluation and modeling techniques. Regular monitoring has possibly a larger role in carbon storage than in oil and gas to confirm the CO2 stays where it is supposed to be. This needs skills such as 4-D seismic and 4-D gravity – all very transferrable with just a little tweaking.”
Brouwers is particularly knowledgeable in this area. During his tenure at Shell he worked on regional and site-specific carbon capture and storage opportunities and directed geothermal commercial feasibility research.
The second area Brouwers identified, in which geoscientists’ skills are necessary, is geothermal energy. This source has been harnessed for centuries, but he believes that we have only recently begun to think more innovatively about how to best exploit this resource.
“It has always been quite a challenge economically, but I think a combination of factors is about to change that,” he suggested. “The primary mover is technology. While CCS predominantly builds on traditional oil and gas practices, in geothermal there is a greater technological jump coming, with completely different drilling methods and techniques, like closed-loop systems – in many cases pushed by startups. Not all these new businesses will be successful, but some will achieve breakthrough technological advancements and thereby make geothermal much more economically attractive in places where it is not at the moment.”
“Unlike wind and solar, geothermal energy is not weather-dependant and it is important that we develop a reliable baseload energy system, especially as many places turn away from alternative reliable sources,” Brouwers continued.
Heat flow predictions, reservoir quality assessments and 3-D subsurface model-building are some examples of geoscience skills required to harness geothermal energy.
“The third area relates to the critical minerals vital for the energy transition: lithium, graphite, copper, cobalt, nickel, etc. According to the IEA, the typical electric vehicle requires six times the mineral input of a conventional one, while wind farms require nine times more minerals than an equivalent gas-fired power plant,” said Brouwers.
“Unfortunately, mining companies have been under-investing in recent years, although strong demand should improve the situation. For geoscientists, there is also a link with geothermal energy and, for example, the possibility of extracting lithium from brine in the system,” he added.
Brouwers said he is worried, however, that we are not training our geoscientists for their role in looking for critical minerals.
“I have heard people working in mining companies say that they just can't find the geologists to do the traditional field work needed to identify these new resources,” he said.
The fourth and probably the least developed area in the energy transition where Brouwers feels geoscientists can make a difference is around longer-term energy storage.
“We really need to start thinking about how we store large amounts of energy for when the wind’s not blowing and the sun's not shining,” he said. “That might include reusing old fields for gas storage or storing green hydrogen in salt caverns. It will require, among others, geochemists who can understand the potential chemical reactions and rock mechanics to study the effects of repeated pressure and temperature changes. We need a much deeper understanding of all these issues.”
In addition to seeking out expertise in various subsurface disciplines, the energy transition needs people with an entrepreneurial mindset from outside oil and gas in order to change the traditional ways of doing things, Brouwers said, and to make it applicable to the future.
“I like the idea of bringing technology from completely different sectors as it will help us make the innovations we need,” he added.
How can we inspire people with the vision required for this transformation, including geologists, to enter the energy industry?
“We need to communicate better,” Brouwers answered. “We need to tell the story, and every time we tell it, hopefully somebody else will be inspired to take on this uncertainty about what the future holds. And I would add that, as geoscientists, we are used to dealing with and seeing opportunities in uncertainty, and that is the kind of mindset we should be trying to translate into the energy transition.”
Brouwers said he is encouraged by the large number of startup companies joining the race to the energy transition and believes the collective industry must help create an environment in which they can prosper.
“Many (of the startups) are founded by oil and gas technical experts and executives, who recognize there is an opportunity to redeploy their skills and capabilities and make something new happen. This not only helps the energy transition and has a positive impact on the world; it offers attractive careers too,” he said.
Finding the Right Balance
“With universities worldwide experiencing declining applications for geoscience, we need to encourage more students into the subject,” Brouwers added.
“We have an image issue: geology is seen as oil and gas-related, which is out of favor at the moment in many places,” he said. “Plus, it could be thought of as somewhat stuffy, looking at bones of dinosaurs – it may not sound as exciting as working with quantum computers, for example. We need to get across the critical role geoscience has in making the energy transition work and how that is aligned with our planet, so that young people can contribute by studying something integral to our future. It’s no good just talking amongst ourselves – we need to reach out to those who are still making choices. Most people reading this will be geoscientists – how do we connect to students, or to politicians, or public in general? Each geoscientist has a role to play in telling that story.”
Geoscientists can also make a difference in the regulatory arena, Brouwers pointed out,
Another area where Brouwers feels geoscientists could make a difference is in the regulatory arena, where they could play a role in giving policymakers advice for making objective, well-informed, fact-based choices in relation to, for example, alternative energy sources. Governments and regulatory bodies are also involved in determining how much support should be offered to technologies at the early stages.
“Subsidies and incentives will be needed because the energy transition will not run purely by itself or be driven by commercial metrics, at least for a while. Some kind of stimulus is needed in order to make it happen, and governments need to be aware of all stakeholders involved. How do you ‘divvy-up’ the North Sea between all the different kinds of users, for example? Traditional oil and gas, CCS, wind farms and fisheries all have interests, so how do we find the right balance?” he said.
“How we use the offshore storage potential for hydrogen, for instance, requires the integration of different low-carbon solutions and that energy system integration is where I see the big next development coming,” he continued. “I have been in discussion with several governments and regulators and nobody I have come across appears to have an integrated plan which effectively manages costs, the carbon side, reliability, energy security and all the other facets. This integration will come and, once again, it will create opportunities for geoscientists to be involved in something where they use their in-depth knowledge of one particular aspect, but they also need to develop a breadth of knowledge to understand all those other energy sources and uses, in order to come up with smart integrated solutions.”
Part of Brouwers’s most recent role with Shell was as global leader for energy transition in the exploration division, in which he led strategy and shaped new business models at the intersection of energy transition, digital and subsurface. After spending much of his time, both in this job and chairing the AAPG forums, discussing the changing roles available to geoscientists, in 2021 he saw an opportunity to join a smaller company, Getech Group Plc (Getech) in the role of chief business development officer. Getech is a growing, ambitious company that applies geoscience and geospatial technologies to accelerate the energy transition.
So, how has he found the change, and would he recommend it?
“Being part of a company supporting the energy transition is very satisfying,” he answered. “I am concentrating on finding business openings in the new green energy areas, which is hugely exciting. The opportunities are large, move fast, and there are so many of them, which gives me a lot of energy. And yes, from my experience I would recommend anyone to look beyond traditional petroleum jobs – there are plenty of tremendous opportunities.”
Considering that first forum in Amsterdam, Brouwers was asked about how the energy industry has changed since then.
He said his biggest surprise, he said, is in how far and how fast the industry has moved since 2018.
“We have made great progress, partly because the social pressures are strengthening as we see the impact that climate change is having on all of us,” he said. “The pathways are much clearer, the universities have modified their courses and industry associations like AAPG and PESGB have made adjustments to the new reality, as have many large companies. The energy transition is accelerating in many different ways and I think there’s much more clarity about the vital role of geoscientists and the opportunities available.”
“As a global community we know we need to get to net zero, although there are places where it will be more easily achieved than in others, but we need to find a cumulative solution. With that global commitment, the push toward energy transition will only strengthen, which means that, for geoscientists, there’s a very bright future ahead,” Brouwers concluded.