CHANGE is not a new phenomenon in the oil and gas industry. Neither are cyclical price swings. Yet, what’s happening now is very different.

Climate concerns have created a global push to decarbonise energy production and use. Investors are taking note and are not as willing to fund large capital projects without assurances that the environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) impacts will be appropriately managed.

On top of this pressure to lower emissions, the industry is now grappling with the effects of a global pandemic. Consumption patterns have been turned on their head. Both upstream and downstream activities have slowed considerably.

A lot has been written in recent months about the industry’s response to today’s volatility. And that is as it should be.

But as we enter 2021 oil and gas companies are at a crossroads. Bold ideas and bolder actions are needed if they are to maintain their relevance and chart a course for profitable growth. However, as industry leaders grapple with their futures, they can’t lose sight of challenges and opportunities that exist in the here-and-now. Challenges like increasing cyber threats.

Opportunities like more effective well planning.

The cybersecurity challenge: Beyond technology

The advantages of the Information Technology/Operational Technology (IT/OT) convergence in the energy industry are apparent. Cost reductions, improved capabilities and greater efficiencies are all by products of bringing together operational technologies and information technologies. Such benefits, however, come at a cost. The convergence has increased the exposure of industrial control systems (ICS) to cyber risks.

New technologies such as cloud, analytics and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), plus the necessity of users to access production data remotely, has brought security challenges that are difficult to resolve in operational technology (OT) environments. For example, having a Windows operating system that is regularly updated with security patches may not be an issue in IT environments, but it is a different story in OT.

An important part of the IT/OT cyber risks are related to the connection between the control and corporate networks. The information flow between both environments has obvious risks like the propagation of IT cyber incidents to the OT environment or the possibility of accessing the control networks from remote locations.

During the last years, multiple technologies have emerged to help companies monitor and respond to cybersecurity issues in the OT networks. Passive monitoring, industrial firewalls, data diodes or contextualised threat intelligence, are examples.

Despite these and other technological advances in recent years, the deployment of technology alone won’t resolve the cybersecurity threat. Companies must look beyond the technology to think about potential changes to cybersecurity processes, capabilities and responsibilities.

And they need to bolster their governance structures for OT security, their risk management practices accounting for the specific requirements of OT, and even their vendor management capabilities. This type of holistic approach can potentially minimise cyberthreats.

The well planning opportunity: Beyond detailed engineering designs

In oil and gas operations, the growing pressure for efficiencies extends to all areas of the organisation, including well planning. The good news is that drilling oil and gas wells has evolved over time into quite an efficient process, delivering drilled footage at a lower cost and faster than ever before. The not-so-good news is that this efficiency makes lost-time and non-productive time (NPT) incidents more costly, when considered as a percentage of the total well delivery expenditure.

Oil and gas companies continue to struggle not only with minimising NPT events, but also infusing drilling plans with greater flexibility and the right level of detail to ensure rig schedules and costs are optimised. Detailed well engineering design efforts—carried out to Authorisation for Expenditure (AFE) approval standards—are still necessary. But they can be time-consuming and subject to user bias.

Increasingly there is an opportunity for oil and gas companies to use data science models and natural language processing to screen wells quickly and automate recommendations for key planning parameters. Well planning and drilling engineers can use this approach to compare wells in a given cluster.

The new approach, which lends itself to analyses of large data sets, makes it possible for engineers to come up with an unbiased estimate of cost and time to drill a given well. Importantly, the use of emerging technologies also highlights likely NPT events and their severity. This means engineers can develop mitigation plans alongside their detailed drilling plans.

As we head into 2021, Accenture believes there are increasing opportunities for oil and gas companies to leverage emerging technologies and analytics, particularly given the volume and complexity of data.

Now is always the right time to improve

While oil and gas leaders are rightly focused on navigating the energy transition and COVID-19-driven volatility, persistent issues continue demanding attention. There are always challenges that can be addressed and opportunities that can be pursued. Leaders who take time to consider new ideas and solutions to age-old concerns could emerge from today’s uncertainty stronger and more resilient than ever before.

The author Christophe Bourdeau leads Accenture Industry X business across Australia & New Zealand.