The oil and gas industry perpetually seems rife with uncertainty and a potential volatility. Between rising and diminishing consumer demand, price fluctuations, and of course, geopolitical issues where one global supplier or another threatens to cut off supplies, every day holds surprises and risks. But 2022 seems to be upping the stakes in terms of risk and uncertainty. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a reminder of how quickly changes in the geopolitical landscape can impact energy prices. Negotiations over a new nuclear deal with Iran add another complication to the energy outlook.
At the same time, the lingering impact of COVID-19 is still being felt. While cases seem to be moderating in many parts of the world, the supply chain and vaccine mandate issues are ongoing, and China’s “zero-COVID” health policies pose a major risk for energy demand growth. Add to this mix the increasing measures across the globe promoting decarbonization efforts and growing activist pressure over climate change.
In my nearly 30 years of looking at oil markets, I can't think of a time when geopolitically there was as much uncertainty over potential high and low points in terms of prices, supply and demand.
What you are left with is a lot of uncertainty and unanswerable questions. This article drills down into the top risks looming over the oil and gas industry for the remainder of 2022 and attempts to provide answers and some steps companies can take to prepare for them.
The uncertain state of the world’s oil supply
In 2022, we are seeing the results of a supply shock with a tight oil supply and supply disruptions driving prices well north of $100 / barrel to near record highs. But believe it or not, there is a scenario where we can see a situation with excess supply later this year or early next. Volatility will likely be with us for some time.
The potential oversupply scenario happens if OPEC makes good on its commitment to continue unwinding the supply cuts it made in 2020, and U.S. unconventional production grows as much as some analysts are forecasting. If these events occur, organizations may end up with an oversupply of oil, with as much as an extra 6.4 million barrels per day late this year. Add to that a potential new nuclear agreement with Iran and the volume of new oil coming onto the market this year will be even higher; some estimates have Iranian exports growing by up to a million barrels a day within a few months if a new pact is struck. (Of course, if a U.S.-Iran deal occurs, it might factor into OPEC’s decision to continue unwinding its cuts.)
On the flipside, of course, is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the risks that it will lead to a further curtailment of Russian oil exports – including more drastic measures from Europe. Outrage over the invasion has led to some self-sanctioning by western buyers; the US has already initiated a ban on Russian oil, and the European Union (EU) is actively contemplating one. The IEA currently predicts as much as 3MM BPD of Russian exports could be taken off the market. On to the demand side, higher energy prices from the Ukraine crisis could have a knock-on effect on international economic growth.
Meanwhile, China appears to be sticking with its “zero COVID” policy, which includes severe lockdowns and other business-limiting measures. What’s more, President Xi's economic and environmental policies may slow down China’s economic expansion, and therefore decrease its demand for oil. This could have a ripple effect on the global economy, making forecasts of increased global oil demand of 3.3 million barrels per day illusory.
For the time being, we’re still experiencing a tight oil market although many are forecasting a growing oil surplus beginning in the second half of the year.1
Impact of rising tensions with Russia on Europe’s gas supply and prices
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted the U.S. and EU to impose severe economic sanctions on Russia.
This tense geopolitical issue is casting a long shadow over gas supplies and prices, especially in Europe.
Reductions in Russian spot sales of gas to Europe in late 2021 contributed to an energy crunch and record natural gas prices in the EU. The fear now is that fighting in Ukraine and the impact of sanctions will disrupt much larger volumes of gas, keeping prices high and undermining EU economic growth this year. If Moscow were to retaliate to U.S. and EU sanctions by cutting off all gas exports to Europe, the results would be even more onerous for European economies.
In some parts of the world, energy transformation and energy security are seen as being synonymous rather than disruptive.
How this crisis plays out in the longer-term will have significant implications for the energy mix in Europe over the next 5-10 years. There is one school of thought that Europe will delay implementation of some of its key “green transition” energy policies to avoid short-term pain. On the other hand, many believe that this vulnerability will motivate EU countries to double down and accelerate the pace of their transition to renewables and clean energy in order to decouple from reliance on Russian gas. This will likely have a big geopolitical impact in terms of Russia's leverage over Europe, and also in terms of where Russia would sell its oil and gas supplies.
Is it politically feasible for EU governments to do this? Can the EU accept the potential short-term pain in terms of increased prices and limited gas supplies in order to gain a long-term advantage? And what steps will it take to ease burden on its citizens?
For example, Germany has said that, in light of the Ukraine invasion, it will not certify the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which was designed to deliver more Russian gas to the EU.2 The bloc is also taking steps to displace some Russian gas with supply from the U.S. and Qatar until its transition efforts are further along and bear more fruit. These are all questions that many hope will be answered as the year moves forward.
Potential impact of global decarbonization efforts on the oil and gas industry
Beyond environmental and economic considerations, Geopolitical volatility is, more than ever, triggering a fundamental re-think of energy strategy around the globe. National security interests will likely determine the speed and direction of the decarbonization journey
When it comes to global energy transformation efforts, it seems like it is one step forward and two steps back. While global energy transformation efforts to reduce emissions are being baked into policies around the world, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach and it’s happening at different speeds in different countries. And as events in Europe illustrate, politics have a major impact.
Fallout from the Ukraine crisis may accelerate the EU’s “Fit for 55” proposals, which aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030. Meanwhile, China also appears to be willing to put up with higher cost and burdens as it forges ahead with its emission reductions. It turns out that in some parts of the world, energy transformation and energy security are seen as being synonymous rather than disruptive.
Ultimately, the tension between governments’ balancing of long-term energy goals and the short-term needs of their citizens will make the road to energy transition extremely bumpy. Governments will have their work cut out for them in trying to minimize the pain that will likely be caused by the transformation efforts while still making progress on its energy policies.
“Activist” impact on the oil and gas industry
It is not just governments that oil and gas companies need to pay close attention to.. Environmental and social activists are putting increasing pressure on the industry, questioning its “social license” to operate. This is largely based on the pollution and climate change damage they believe the industry is responsible for.
The industry has dealt with this issue for decades but increasing attention on the threat of global warming has really increased.
Activist investors are speaking with their pocketbooks and shifting more of their investment dollars toward green energy. Another game changer has been the expansion of social media platforms and new technology that provides activists with the ability to get their message out more widely to the general public and also more directly to corporate executives and board members. In addition, climate activists are taking to the courts; although the results have been mixed, the potential liability and bad publicity it generates creates great uncertainty and risk for the industry.
As a result, oil and gas companies are feeling intense pressure to respond in terms of capital allocation decisions and strategy out of fear of damage to both their corporate reputation and bottom lines.
A somewhat surprising development that may come out of the private sector continuing to shift its investment focus toward green energy and away from oil and gas is that national oil companies (NOCs) may end up with even more power – at least in the short term. Regardless of what happens in the long term, worldwide energy needs are not decreasing. So while some oil and gas firms may gradually get squeezed out of the market, it may lead to even greater reliance on the NOCs for their production. And this may give them greater political leverage. But NOCs should act judiciously; if they push their advantage too hard, it may backfire and end up with a faster shift away from consumption of oil and gas in the longer term.
Hope for the best, prepare for the worst
It’s impossible to predict the future. Who could have imagined the COVID 19 pandemic that’s upended the world and the global economy for two years? Or the military invasion of Ukraine by the Russian government that what will likely be a profound political and economic global fallout.
Much of what may happen is out of the control of the oil and gas industry. However, the following are some steps you may want to consider taking so that your organization will be as well positioned and prepared as possible regardless of what occurs in 2022.
- Have an ESG (environmental, social and governance) plan in place to proactively address activist investor and stakeholder concerns. Tackle the issues head-on rather than waiting to respond under pressure.
- Review your organizations’ crisis playbook. Does it include all potential scenarios, and is it updated regularly?
- Review your organization’s commodity risk management philosophy. Prepare for how short and long-term changes in the pricing environment could impact customer and shareholder sentiment, and also government involvement.
- Understand how proposed legislation and government actions could impact your company: Determine if your organization has the flexibility to shift gears quickly to take advantage of opportunities as political agendas change.
- Focus on relationship building: Continue or increase efforts to build relationships with all relevant stakeholders, including consumer groups, governments, regulators, and society at large. In the same way, consider industry and cross-industry cooperation efforts to proactively shape reasonable regulation with governments.
- Get your supply chains in order: Review your current setup and determine how you can reduce disruption and improve resilience.
- For example, are your operations flexible and resilient enough to adapt and adjust in real-time to changes in trade flows, new regulations, continued COVID-19 disruption, climate change, trade tensions and other geopolitical movements?
- Is your technology current so you can reduce operating costs, provide visibility, and seamlessly diversify the way customer needs are met?
- Review your organization’s cyber defense protection: The risk of a cyber breach is perhaps the most underestimated above-ground risk in the oil and gas sector. It cuts across political and geographical boundaries, and any company, regardless of size, is a potential target. No matter your location or where you operate, you are equally vulnerable to a cyber security breach.
Final thoughts: Navigating through the uncertainty
As this article has highlighted, there hasn’t been a time where there’s been more uncertainty for oil and gas companies. What is certain, however, is that the world is not going to go back to where it was, and the oil and gas industry will need to change. There will likely be a continuing push for decarbonization and other climate control efforts, whether by governments or activist and consumer groups, and incremental tweaks to technology may not do the trick.
The speed and intensity of the transformation may be impacted by short-term supply and price issues and geopolitical events, but the future direction is clear. The oil and gas industry will need to change, and you should be taking steps now to prepare for the inevitable.
Risks on the horizon: The search for talent
The oil and gas industry has faced a talent shortage for years due to an aging workforce, limited new/young talent entering the industry, and growing competition for talent with the technology industry. This difficulty in getting and retaining talent, which may pose significant issues for the future of the industry, can be attributable to several factors:
The negative perception of the industry: The industry is often cast in a negative light by the media. As a result, many talented individuals tend to shun the industry – although this is by no means universal.
That’s why oil and gas companies continue to rely on the experienced crews who often come back after retirement as contractors.
What’s more, there may be a need to “import” foreign employees from India, China and Russia, for example, to help fill the breach. But that also may entail a host of political, immigration and security issues.
Lack of employees with the “right” skills: India has been leading the world in awarding bachelor’s degree equivalent science and engineering (S&E) degrees, followed closely by China.6 The United States is a distant third with the largest percentage of S&D degrees awarded in the field of social sciences and behavioral sciences, a stark contrast to other S&E producing countries who tend to award engineering or physical, biological, mathematics, and statistics degrees (PBMS).7
Employees with engineering and PBMS degrees are exactly the type of skills needed to develop technology and operationalize decarbonization investments in the oil and gas industry.
The onus is on oil and gas companies to make sure they get and retain the necessary talent by reviewing their recruiting and retention efforts. They also need to find ways to upskill or retrain their current workforce, which is what over 92 percent of energy companies plan on doing to address this climate skills gaps.9
New workplace dynamics: The oil and gas industry is regarded as a relatively staid, conservative one. But to successfully compete for talent these days, you may have to become more flexible and adapt to the new realities of the modern workforce. Spurred on by the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies permitted or accelerated remote and more flexible working arrangements for their employees whenever possible. This is a change that can help energy companies connect better with the values of coming generations.
Also, as the workforce diversifies, managers should seek to expand their understanding of how to work with people from different backgrounds. This may include acknowledging and embracing the increased importance of ESG and diversity, equity, and inclusion demographics (e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation) and values. This should be done at both the workforce and board levels.
You may also want to consider crafting a value proposition that resonates with younger employees and potential recruits. Keep in mind that money isn’t everything, particularly for millennials; they tend to want challenging experiences that help grow their capabilities. What’s more, different groups and different generations may require different value propositions and also have different learning styles and communication styles that should be taken into account.
For example, one oil and gas company found that it was losing many of the millennials it had recruited. They were using the same onboarding procedures that had been used successfully for decades, with dozens of written forms, endless pages of orientation materials, and hours of classroom sessions. They decided to switch to a more virtual, mobile and automated training process, which resulted in a much higher retention rate.10
Tips for improving employee recruiting and retention
Here are several ideas oil and gas companies may want to run with to improve their recruiting efforts with potential employees:
Ramp up (or reinstate) summer internship programs
Sponsor (or increase your investments in) scholarships, prizes, fairs and afterschool programs that focus on STEM disciplines
Organize business-school conferences and job fairs
Forge stronger relations with universities and other training institutes
Promote interest in the STEM disciplines among high school (or younger) students with campaigns and programs designed to appeal to this audience
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1 Reuters, OPEC+ trims forecast for 2022 oil market surplus in latest data, 27 February 2022
2 Reuters, Germany freezes Nord Stream 2 gas project as Ukraine crisis deepens, 22 February 2022
3 “One Step Up” by Bruce Springsteen
4 Brunel International / Oil and Gas Job Search, Energy outlook Report 2021-2022
5 University of Houston, Insights into the Oil and Gas Workforce of the Future
6 National Science Federation, Higher Education in Science and Engineering, (2018).
7 National Science Federation, Higher Education in Science and Engineering, (2018)
8 Eversheds Sutherland/KPMG, Climate change and the people factor (2021).
9 Eversheds Sutherland/KPMG, Climate change and the people factor (2021).
10 KPMG/Rigzone, When one crisis meets another: Focusing on talent for the long term (2015).