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Interview

DecomCONNECT – Skills Viewpoint -An interview with HKA’s Kevin Slater

4th August 2021

In DecomCONNECT’s August edtion, Editor Tony Wareing talked to HKA’s Kevin Slater about his career as a Chartered Engineer, his experiences working in the oil and gas industry and what lies ahead in the race to net zero, as we transition to clean energy solutions.

Q: Can you tell us a little of where you studied and worked?

Kevin: I left school at 16 years old and started an engineering apprenticeship at C.A. Parsons at Heaton, Newcastle upon Tyne (manufacturers of Steam turbine Generators). This was a four year apprenticeship approved by North of England Engineering Employers Association, which was excellent, even though I didn’t appreciate its significance at the time. I studied on day release at Newcastle College of Arts and Technology, then later at Northumbria University (formerly Newcastle Polytechnic). My study days would involve a 15 hour day, 2 days a week (including the commute). Perhaps this is not something many 16 year olds would willingly undertake these days.

Q: Why did you choose your career path? And what were your motivators for making the choices you have?

Kevin: I chose engineering by default I suppose. At school my best subjects were Engineering Drawing, Woodwork, Maths, Physics and Computer studies; so it seemed like a natural progression to move into the engineering sector. Also, I lived not too far from Newcastle which has a heavy engineering industry heritage and in those days, many boys who were leaving school and looking for a career in engineering, generally sought employment at C.A. Parsons, or Swan Hunter shipyard or the National Coal Board.

Q: No doubt you have had many influencers throughout your career, could you mention any and how they encouraged you?

Kevin: My mother encouraged me to take responsibility and work for a living whilst at the same time studying, which was very hard work. She believed in my academic ability, however both my parents came from a working class background, therefore she expected me to earn a living as soon as I could. It taught me self-discipline, responsibility, independence and accomplishment. My father was a motor mechanic and he seemed to be able to fix anything, and I have taken the same hands-on approach to solving problems in engineering.

Q: How long have you worked in your role?

Kevin: I have worked as a Technical Director for HKA for the past 2 ½ years, prior to that I worked as a freelance consultant engineer.

Q: And have you found any changes over recent years not including Covid of course, we’ll address that shortly?

Kevin: Yes many changes. Prior to HKA I worked freelance as a consultant to the Oil and Gas Industry for 20 years. The Oil and Gas industry is going through a major transformation due to the climate crisis and the effects of CO2 emissions.

Q: How has lockdown been for you? Maybe tell us about a
‘typical day in [or out of] the office’ – have you taken up anything new? or revisited something you started?

Kevin: the lockdown has not affected my usual routine as much as it has for others since I was already working from my home office the majority of the time. However, the travel restrictions etc have prohibited office visits, therefore most days have meant working in isolation apart from online ‘digital’ meetings and conferences. My routine is generally 8.30 to 17.30 with an exercise break at lunchtime. I have always exercised and I believe this is a very important part of living a healthy life. It keeps my energy levels high, which allows me to be more productive.

Q; Is the Energy Transition and the race to net zero on track?

Kevin: In summary, no it is definitely not. There is much to be done if we are to minimise the global damage and destruction due to global warming as a result of CO2 emissions. The race to net zero will require a major shift in the way we produce energy and how we consume it. It will require global agreements, especially with the largest polluters and the poorest countries.

Q: How do you see the Environmental Impact of Subsea Production Systems and the Oil & Gas Industry?

Kevin: I read an article in the press last week concerning climate change; “In August 1974, the CIA produced a study on “climatological research as it pertains to intelligence problems”. The diagnosis was dramatic. It warned of the emergence of a new era of weird weather, leading to political unrest and mass migration (which, in turn, would cause more unrest).” At that time, they were not sure if the climate changes would occur as a result of warming temperatures or cooling but they were concerned about the political impact, i.e. mass migration, political unrest, potential wars etc. The Oil and Gas Industry, in general, has been for many years, and still is, one of the biggest contributors to the current climate crisis. The world depends on fossil fuels as a major source of energy, for transport, heating, industry etc and the Oil and Gas industry, along with coal burning in power stations and industry, is the biggest contributor to global warming due to CO2 emissions. For decades the Oil and Gas majors have made vast amounts of money from the production of fuels and bi-products from the process of hydrocarbons with detrimental effects to the environment. Now it is payback time. These companies, and the people who work for them, have the experience and knowledge to greatly assist in the Energy Transition to clean, green energy production and can provide the resource to make this happen, faster, more efficiently and successfully. But time is not on our side. We have wasted too much time denying that global warming is mainly caused by human activities. The evidence is there for all to see, as every year we experience warmer temperatures (recently 49.6 C in Canada, 47.8 C in Siberia), extreme forest fires and destruction in California, Australia, etc and extreme flooding now in all parts of the world.

Q: How Can the Oil & Gas Industry Reduce its Impact on the Environment?

Kevin: By capturing and storing the CO2 produced before it is released into the atmosphere, known as Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage (CCUS). CO2 from industry, power stations etc, can be captured and then stored in rock formations, either on land or offshore. Many companies and organisations see this as the best solution to allow the production of energy from fossil fuels (oil and gas) until the world is in a position to move completely to carbon free energy production. This is viewed by many as a major factor in the Energy Transition and the road to net zero, and many Oil and Gas majors are investing heavily in CCUS. However, it is a contentious issue due to its ongoing dependence on fossil fuels.

Q: I read recently that, from a business perspective, Net Zero can be a golden opportunity – do you agree?

Kevin: Yes definitely. The UK, USA, EU and China have all introduced net zero targets and legislation is being introduced to achieve these targets. From a business perspective this is a golden opportunity, since the demand is confirmed. Indeed, I think those companies who have already made the transition from fossil fuels to carbon free energy, such as Ørsted, will succeed as leaders in the race to net zero.

Q: Spending in the upstream oil and gas sector is expected to gradually begin to rise from 2022, do you think it will reach the pre-crisis period any time soon?

Kevin: There are many analyst reports available which offer varying statistics. However according to the IEA, the current global oil demand in June 2021 was 96.8mb/d, and the price was circa $72/bbl, this compares with circa 100 mb/d and $66/bbl at December 2019. Oil is expected to recover by 5.7mb/day y-o-y as the economy recovers, therefore it is projected to reach pre crisis levels by end 2021/ early 2022. Global gas demand is expected to recover by 3.6% in 2021. And unless major policy changes to curb global gas consumption are introduced, demand is set to keep growing in the coming years, and is projected to reach circa 4,300 bcm by 2024 which is a 7% rise from pre-Covid levels. The long range Oil forecast predicts demand will peak around 2026 and then decline after circa 2030, as the world makes the transition to renewable and sustainable energies. Gas demand is set to increase and peak around 2035 then slowly decline towards 2050. Obviously these scenarios will depend upon global government policies and regulations and the success of the Energy Transition to clean renewable energies (info courtesy of IEA).

Q: What ‘good practices’ can be learned across Oil & Gas, Nuclear, or Renewable Energy sectors?

Kevin: The UK Oil and Gas sector has the advantage of being very mature (existed since 1970’s) and is a world leading example of industry best practices, compliance, technical standard bodies, codes, regulators, certifying authorities and operational safety processes. Examples of best practices exist in the form of corporate governance i.e. Stage gate reviews; risk reviews, project execution plans; large scale project execution, project strategy procedures. Also economic reviews, project controls, contract management, EPC contracts, and mature technical standards and procedures. These industries have very experienced personnel and huge amounts of data which, in most cases, are directly transferrable to the less well developed Renewable Energy sector. This will assist greatly in the Energy Transition.

Q: What challenges lie ahead for the offshore upstream Oil & Gas industry?

Kevin: I recently heard in the news about the controversy concerning new Oil and Gas exploration in UK waters at the Cambo oilfield near Shetland Isles. The UK will not commit to stopping new oil exploration in the North Sea despite warnings from the IEA that there can be no more new oil and gas exploration if the world wants to meet the net-zero targets by 2050. The UK government has stated “We will not be cancelling licences that were recently awarded. Any future licences are only awarded on the basis that they are aligned with the government’s broad climate change ambitions, including the UK’s target of reaching net-zero by 2050”. However this could become a huge embarrassment for the UK government at COP26 if it is forced into a U-turn on this issue. The government has commissioned the International Energy Agency to chart a path towards net-zero emissions by 2050. The IEA Executive Director, Dr. Fatih Birol, has stated the world already has sufficient existing Oil and Gas resources to meet its demands and we must now concentrate on the transition to clean, renewable and sustainable energies. A spokesman from the OGUK has stated “Stopping local exploration would be a major drawback for the energy transition underway – reducing the UK’s resilience and increasing our reliance on imports from countries whose carbon emissions we cannot control and that have lesser environmental regulations”. The dilemma for the UK government is how can it be seen to be taken seriously as world leader in the transition to clean, green energies and leading the global race to reach net zero, if it is to continue with the exploration and production of Oil and Gas. If the UK cannot get this right, what chance is there for the poorer, less developed countries to give up their dependence on fossil fuels and switch to renewable, sustainable forms of energy?
The main challenge for the offshore upstream Oil & Gas industry is the ability to transform itself, in a very short time frame, from an industry which is contributing to the global warming crisis, to one which can greatly help industries across the world succeed in the race to reducing carbon emissions to achieve net zero. In reality, we cannot continue to burn fossil fuels to create energy or provide transport. The world is in a state of crisis and the human population has caused it due to its ever increasing appetite for energy consumption, transportation, food etc.

Q: What advice could you offer to someone looking for a career in your field?

Kevin: There are huge opportunities for anyone thinking of starting a career in engineering. Never before has there been such a huge demand for Electrical and Electronic engineers and technicians i.e. as we produce more green, sustainable energies there will be a huge demand to integrate the increased capacity into the existing grid & infrastructure. Electrification of transportation will require a large resource. Also, energy storage such as battery and hydrogen storage will require thousands of engineers globally.

Q: And finally, what question have I missed asking you and how would you answer it?

Kevin: How can todays younger generation make a difference in the fight against climate change?

It’s all about education. And in some cases we need our children to educate our adults. We have already seen children taking the lead to educate others; i.e. a 15 year old Swedish school girl challenging world leaders on climate change. From an engineering, scientific, social and environmental perspective the opportunities are endless, as mentioned above. The UK government has introduced its 10-point ‘Green Energy Revolution’ plan; its purpose is to lay the foundations for a Green Industrial Revolution and focus on the skills needed to achieve net zero. The plan is to support up to 250,000 jobs by 2030 which should help increase diversity and support the transition from high carbon industries and develop the roadmap for government, business, and education institutions.
There is much talk but now we need action. Education institutions and industries need to lay out a clear path, signposted for students to follow, which will guide them into the clean energy sector to help tackle the climate crisis. Not enough is being done in this area.

Kevin Slater, Technical Director, HKA
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