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In April 2020, on the heels of the pandemic shutdown, the price of crude oil fell to a negative value for the first time ever, sending ripples through an oil and gas industry that had more ebbed than waned in the United States over the past 10 to 15 years. Going forward, there is a generally positive sentiment about the importance of oil and gas extraction to our collective energy economy, but the downturn has created significant introspection across the industry.
While companies lick their wounds and decide their next moves, an important concept called environmental and social corporate governance (ESG) has come greater into focus. The hydrocarbon extraction and processing industry as a whole has certainly come under increasing scrutiny for its potential environmental implications (especially, greenhouse gas emissions) in the past several years. The truth of the matter is that some companies are more progressive and responsible with their actions towards documenting, limiting, and mitigating deleterious environmental and social impacts than others.
Even if the fine details about how it is regulated have not been fully formulated, ESG promises to involve some overall metric to rank the environmental and social responsibility efforts and actions of companies. Favorable metrics will be necessary to attract investment dollars in the industry going forward.
It is worth mentioning that, while ESG is discussed very prominently in the hydrocarbon processing industry (HPI), it is a concept that is permeating corporate America, as a whole. A closer look would likely find that virtually all major corporations now have some executive sustainability officer who is focused on reducing waste and improving environmental and social sustainability. While our research has primarily been involved with assessing the potential environmental impacts of upstream oil and gas production from shale, inevitably we also became involved in the midstream logistics of handling the product, and more importantly the wastewater byproducts. In most shale plays, the volume of water byproduct (so-called “produced water”) far exceeds the volume of hydrocarbons extracted from an oil and gas well. We have worked with small and large companies to assess the effectiveness of different produced-water treatment technologies—the goal being to recycle or reuse the treated water, rather than to simply dispose of it underground, where it has been shown to cause unwanted seismic activity. The success of these technologies will ultimately be driven by their cost, throughput, performance, and robustness.
That said, going forward, downstream HPI activity is likely a bigger opportunity for industrial–academic partnerships. Downstream HPI activity deals with turning raw products into those that can be used by the consumer, including fuels, plastics, and other feedstocks. A prominent way a company can improve its ESG is to reduce reliance on virgin feedstocks and instead, to recycle used products. For example, an abundance of used plastic products can be broken back down into their constituent monomers and used anew.
This concept screams for more development in chemical measurements and analysis. As researchers develop new catalysts, which can be used to selectively decompose plastics, those catalysts need to be characterized (for example, pore structure, porosity, chemical make-up). The next level of complexity comes from the wide range of different plastics desired to be processed. Plastics are essentially reduced into a range of pyrolysis oils. Imagine the varying heteroatom content present both in the plastic feedstock and the finished pyrolysis oil. Different heteroatoms can have particularly deleterious effects on catalyst performance. Depending on the desired use of the recycled feedstock, not only the heteroatom content, but also the olefin and aromatic content of the product oils are desired to be determined.
The downstream HPI market, especially that associated with plastics recycling and driven heavily by a desire for improved ESG, is expected to double in the next 30 years. This is a major opportunity for academia to re-engage in the HPI, through the development of novel hardware and software solutions. Gas chromatography literally got its start in HPI. Instead, now think multi-dimensional separation and detection systems implemented for routine process monitoring. It is no small challenge, but it is one modern analytical chemists are ready to address. On the flip side, HPI companies are looking for an edge and will certainly have significant budgets associated with establishing themselves as a responsible leader in the industry through ESG.
The time should be right for the developing of more industry–academic partnerships in HPI, and the driving force is to achieve overall greater sustainability. This feels like it could be a “win” all around for everyone and the environment.
Kevin A. Schug is a Full Professor and the Shimadzu Distinguished Professor of Analytical Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry at The University of Texas at Arlington. Direct correspondence to: email@example.com