Hundreds of thousands of oil and gas jobs globally could be replaced by robots, according to a new report from Rystad Energy.
The oil and gas consulting firm said that the positions could be filled using existing technology, saving billions of dollars on reduced labour costs by 2030.
Drilling is one area that could see enormous savings. The process is both highly labour intensive and, especially in offshore environments, dangerous.
In addition, Rystad noted that inspection, maintenance, and repair (IMR) operations had much to gain from replacing human workers with robots.
Currently, numerous companies offer subsea remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) for offshore work, saving divers from having to work in particularly treacherous conditions. However, the use of drones has become more common in recent years, being used to inspect the outside of rigs as well as offshore wind farms.
By applying current supplier specs, Rystad Energy estimated that robotic drilling systems can potentially reduce the number of workers required on a drilling rig, or in operational support, and maintenance, by 20-30%.
Figures for 2019 estimated that over 30,000 people are currently directly employed in the UK’s offshore oil and gas industry, with indirect and induced employment bringing the total up to 269,000. As such, Rystad believes the UK could potentially shed 20,000-30,000 jobs over the next decade, with the majority coming from support roles.
“Despite the huge potential of robotics, operators should be aware that these savings will be partially offset by the considerable investments required for the adoption of these solutions, which may vary depending on the cost structure and whether the robots are owned or leased,” said Rystad Energy Energy Service Analyst Sumit Yadav.
While existing technology could be used to replace jobs, next-generation robotics solutions offer considerable savings on operating costs. One example is perpetually underwater robotics solutions, which would replace conventional ROVs, which need to surface. This would save time and money on having to hire a vessel to operate topside during operations.
While many of the new robotics solutions will replace human operators, technology is available to support and protect staff. Rystad pointed to wearable safety technology from Transocean that alarms crew if they come too close to drilling equipment.
However, Rystad noted that the long-term reliability of robotics in complex environments common in the energy industry has yet to be tested, meaning that full-scale adoption is still years away. Furthermore, introducing regulations needed to ensure robots can operate safely, both with humans and with each other, will cause further delays.
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For oil and gas staff, the energy transition away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy is putting further pressure on the industry. While many oil and gas workers have skills transferrable to the renewables sector, many robotics solutions in oil and gas can also apply to renewables.
Since the 2014 crash, oil prices have struggled for years to return to previous highs around the $100-mark. Having taken a historic dive into the negatives in spring last year, oil prices remain stubbornly in the $40-60 band as the pandemic depresses economic activity.
As such, many oil and gas companies, especially upstream and services companies, have found their margins tightened and costs needing cut. Replacing expensive human staff with robots provides an obvious way of reducing expenses.
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