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Why the world will still have oil and gas as part of energy mix for a while to come – Pita-Nwana

Ikenna Kene Pita-Nwana is a versatile Petroleum Engineer with over 20 years professional experience covering Deep Water Drilling, Completions and Asset Retirement functions with one of the international oil and gas companies. In this interview with OBINNA EMELIKE, he says the world will still need to have oil and gas as part of the energy mix for a while to come and many more. Excerpts:

Can we meet you sir? Tell us a little about yourself?

It is good to talk to you. I am a Nigerian Oil and Gas industry professional. I have worked 20 years in the industry in Africa, Asia and North America in various capacities related to Facilities Construction and Maintenance, Drilling and Completions and Asset Retirement specifically Well Abandonments. I am married with 2 children.

The coronavirus pandemic has left in its wake a lot of disruptions in all areas of human endeavor, including the oil and gas sector, even though there seems to be some level of easing; how has this disruption impacted your areas of expertise within the industry? What trend do you see impacting deep water drilling and well abandonment programmes as a result?

The ongoing pandemic has been a massive disruption. It is safe to say that all industries and areas of human endeavor are affected. The oil industry has not been an exception. The pandemic exacerbated the challenges the industry was coping with and it could not have come at a worse time. The industry went from trying to manage operating in a low price environment to dealing with added pressures resulting from collapsing demand due to the pandemic. With this scenario clear, priorities had to be modified to ensure the organisations survive the pandemic. Different organisations managed it in different ways. It has led to postponement or outright cancellation of capital investment, asset sales, a greater drive to be more efficient in managing operating cost and even staff rationalisations. Basically, operations need to meet a higher economic value threshold for sanction. At the end, value to government and shareholders, regulation and impact to the environment will provide guidance to the path forward.

There seems to be a shift globally from fossil fuels (hydrocarbon) to renewable or clean energy, which will no doubt cause some disruptions in the energy sector. In your opinion, how are the energy sector, and major oil and gas producing nations responding to or preparing for this shift?

Before I answer, it is important to provide perspective. The oil and gas industry still provides the most reliable and available source of widely accessible energy that runs the economy of the world today and for the foreseeable future. Bear in mind that coal is still in widespread use for power generation now. With that said, the shift to renewables is real and ongoing. The industry is adapting its strategy in consideration to this. There is additional emphasis to identify and focus on more environmentally-friendly energy like natural gas, thermal power and investing in emission reduction technologies like carbon capture. The fact many of the major oil companies support the Paris Agreement on climate change shows the understanding of the ongoing transition and change in strategies been applied to adapt to it. However, the world will still need to have oil and gas as part of the energy mix for a while to come.

Let us get to your profession now. As a Petroleum Engineer, with specialisation in Drilling and Completions as well as Well Abandonments, what does your work entail?

My work entails the safe and efficient construction of wells in the various oil fields in the world. At the end of the well’s lifecycle, safely abandoning it in a cost effective and environmentally sound condition enabling returning the area to normal natural conditions and available for normal use. This in a nutshell is my work. Of course, there is a wide variety of well types, complexity and disciplines involved.

What is the most challenging project you have delivered? How did you feel after delivering such a project?

A number of projects come to mind with the different reasons providing the challenge. I have been responsible for drilling deep water wells in the Gulf of Guinea. This environment as you may know is very expensive and technically challenging. There is no margin for error with failures leading to significant negative outcomes as was seen in the Deepwater Horizon incident. Successfully completing such wells yield some deserving professional pride in my view. In the well abandonment area, properly plugging obsolete wells which ensures there would not be an environmental event in the future while returning the area to its natural state provides the personal satisfaction of contributing to the well-being of the society and environment.

What would you remember as the biggest challenges you have ever faced in your career? How did you resolve them? Have you ever thought of quitting? Any incident that made you want to quit?

A big challenge working in the industry often throws up especially for disciplines requiring field work is the travel and being away from home. It requires a stable and resourceful home front to ensure one’s family is adequately cared for in your absence. It also sometimes can result in risks that have to be managed. Almost 19 years ago, early in my career, I was involved in a boat accident. Fortunately, I and fellow passengers all survived despite the boat sinking because we applied our emergency management training and tools. That was the closest I came to making a change in careers.

You have worked on different projects with different teams in Nigeria, Thailand and the USA, how has your experience working overseas helped in your current role?

The opportunity to work in different countries and the attendant exposure to different cultures builds adaptability in managing differences in living and working environments. It produces a sensitivity to how to communicate with others and how others perceive information you are trying to convey. With the realisation that different geographical and cultural environments have different standards and modes of communication, you understand to watch for the cues which enable you fully appreciate how best to convey information with minimal misunderstanding. Working across different geographical areas also provides the opportunity to leverage or translate ideas and best practices from one region you have worked to another. Ultimately, this enhances the work product being delivered.

What would you term the biggest challenge facing well abandonment and asset retirement in Africa, if any?

The biggest challenge facing asset retirement and well abandonment is a question of prioritisation particularly in the face of the pressures we discussed earlier related to the low oil price and capital management environment. It is not surprising that governments are focused on efforts that will help maintain their cash flow. Well abandonments require fund commitments with the resulting benefit being improvements in the environment which can perhaps, be postponed to a more opportune time. The problem with this is that postponement can result in a potential increase in the resources needed to abandon these wells in the future or the possibility of an environmental incident in the interim. Be that as it may, the trend is changing. Governments and industry players are finally increasing the importance assigned to environmental factors which should hopefully change the priority given to this field.

Has drilling and well abandonment evolved? How has this evolution impacted optimisation? What would you say is the future of well drilling and construction projects? How prepared are we for this future?

Preparation to manage what is in the future depends on what is done today. Wells are designed now with better consideration to the full well lifecycle including abandonment. Strategically there is the evolution in the importance being assigned to the environment. The provision of resources and the commitment to execute abandonment campaigns cannot be understated. So long as the industry continues to have meaningful value, drilling and completions and the production of crude oil will have a place due to its role in contributing to the energy mix required to run the future economy. The challenge comes in the commitment to plan for the hundreds of obsolete wells in Nigeria and tens of thousands around the world that need to be properly plugged. So, there will be a need for knowledgeable and experienced people in this field for the foreseeable future.

How do you relax, when you are not thinking of field, technical and support functions in oilfield operations?

One word – family. Spending precious time with family. Building memories with my wife and children with the things we do together is what relaxes me the most. I have spent so much time away from home that I realise any moment engaging with my family is precious. Other than that, I find I am fairly easily engaged with a good book or the garden patch I recently started behind my home.

What would be your advice to aspiring and early career Drilling Engineers?

My advice to aspiring engineers is to be flexible. Be grounded in the discipline while maintaining the openness to new technology and sciences. The evolution of technology now means only adaptable individuals who can quickly take on and apply emerging tools will be well placed to solve future problems. Opportunities are available for personal and professional advancement, but cycle time between application of technology is reducing and the industry is now in transition to a future with a more environmentally sensitive outlook. Adaptability will be essential.

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