For this issue, we interviewed three women working toward a solution for climate change. Two of the women work at the forefront of carbon capture and storage (CCS), developing technology and working on projects at two major oil and gas companies. The third works for a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in the environmental sector in India, and provides us with her view of the oil and gas industry and on solutions for meeting global energy demand in a more environmentally friendly manner.
Ashleigh Hildebrand Ross
Reservoir Engineer, ConocoPhillips
My father had a PhD in chemistry, and I was destined to follow in his footsteps…until I decided that chemical engineering had wider job prospects. I attended Oklahoma State University where I got an honors bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, with minors in chemistry and philosophy. By graduation, I had rediscovered my childhood environmental passion and attended the University of Cambridge for a master’s in environmental policy, researching refineries and environmental enforcement strategies. I then arrived at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to do a PhD in chemical engineering, but turned back to my personal ambitions, gaining master’s degrees in chemical engineering and “technology and policy,” for which I did interdisciplinary research on CCS.
I recognized that the oil and gas industry is uniquely positioned to implement CCS projects, so I joined ConocoPhillips and became involved in a real commercial-scale CCS project. I have since transitioned to reservoir engineering, where I am developing subsurface technical capacity in CCS in addition to providing technical support for traditional oil and gas projects.
Before I joined the industry, I thought investing in a technology was a straightforward decision. Now that I see how many competing pressures and interests are involved, internally and externally, I understand this is an ongoing struggle. Although our industry is perhaps the best equipped to take on technological challenges, investing in climate change solutions isn’t a profitable business—yet. It will be in the future, but until there’s an economic disincentive for emitting greenhouse gases, and legislative and regulatory certainty, investing in low-carbon technologies is hard to justify to stockholders.
CCS is a critical technology for the future. It isn’t a long-term permanent solution to greenhouse gas emissions—that must lie in renewable energy. However, as fossil fuels are so deeply engrained in our society and economy, there’s going to be a transition period where its use is unavoidable. CCS can mitigate the impact of greenhouse gas emissions.
The better reservoir engineer I am, the better CO2 storage engineer I can be. Right now I am enjoying the more traditional oil and gas projects as well as my CCS research. In the long term, depending on how the CCS market shapes up, I may start looking for other environmental challenges in the oil and gas industry that I can tackle. I want to feel like I’m benefitting society, and I see my role as helping to push forward smart and practical environmental technologies.
Research Assistant, Gomukh Trust, India
My first experience in the environmental industry started at age 18 when I worked as a volunteer at an NGO, preparing modules for gifted tribal students about conserving their “sacred forests.” I currently work as a researcher at an NGO in India called the Gomukh Environmental Trust for Sustainable Development, which works in integrated watershed development and management, rural development, and lobbying and litigation for green policies. The environmental industry has attracted and engaged me over the years because it transcends and fuses the boundaries between various fields like ecology, sociology, economics, and politics, yet it touches the very fundamental philosophy of people and their life choices in terms of what they eat, wear, teach, and so on.
More than 56% of CO2 emissions from fuel come from the use of oil and gas (according to the International Energy Agency), while global energy demand is going to increase by 45% by 2030. However, to blame the “producers” (the oil and gas industry) for climate change is unreasonable. Climate change is the compounded effect of a lot of different factors like increased industrialization and urbanization.
While the oil and gas industry is in many ways affecting the global environment, some oil companies are taking great effort in reducing their own emissions, investing in CCS and renewable energy, and engaging in promotion of the efficient use of fuels.
Geoengineering approaches like “carbon sequestration” seem promising. However, it would be best to take a “precautionary” approach as we know very little about the environmental implications of underground CO2 storage. Besides, its cost-benefit ratios need to be studied before its full-fledged implementation.
There is not going to be a single answer for meeting global energy demand, but biofuels do emerge as the most promising alternative. Combustion engines are still the best option in the automotive sector, consumers are accustomed to the technology, and biofuels are the closest option to fossil oil.
Women in the environmental industry in India are seen as dominating the NGO and research sectors, and in teaching in the environmental education domain. These sectors offer women the flexibility they need, especially in India where women are still looked upon as “home-makers” and not “breadwinners.” The “environmental industry” is still not viewed as a “conventional” working area, and changing this scene through policies and employment generation will be important in the long run for the holistic development of this domain.
I joined Shell in 2006, after completing my PhD in geosciences. Initially I worked in research, focusing on CO2, then moved to the CCS and sour gas solutions team in exploration and production. My work there involved risk assessment methodologies of CO2 storage—developing exploration-style screening criteria for identifying CO2 storage complexes and monitoring plans. I also contributed to the joint Qatar and Shell proposal for a draft methodology on CCS under the Clean Development Mechanism proposed to the United Nations.
I currently work in Shell’s sour gas and CCS centre of expertise. I joined this department to gain hands-on experience in major oil and gas projects. The work largely supports asset and project teams to help quickly solve specialized technical problems, including Shell CCS activities.
I believe CCS has an essential role to play in the world’s efforts to reduce CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. By 2050, it could provide around one-fifth of the CO2 mitigation effort needed. It’s the only technology capable of managing CO2 emissions from power plants and other large-scale facilities that burn fossil fuels. The development of CCS is evolving rapidly but demonstration projects still face hurdles around regulations, financing, and public acceptance.
There is no silver bullet to resolving climate change. It will require a mix of energy solutions. At Shell, the main low-carbon focus, apart from CCS, is on increasing supplies of natural gas as the cleanest-burning fossil fuel, and on increasing supplies of sustainable biofuels. Biofuels are the most realistic, commercial, and significant way to reduce CO2 emissions in road transport over the next 20 years.
As for being a woman in the industry, I personally have not encountered any special challenges. I am about to become a mother and plan to return to work full time. This will bring a new set of challenges especially around work-life balance, not just for me, but also my husband, as we are part of dual-career couple in the industry. Only time will tell. I would encourage women to follow their professional dreams, and not be prejudiced by outdated stereotypes about the oil and gas industry.