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Sustainability is difficult to define and is in basic terms referred to as the process of maintaining a certain level of productivity in an organization, community, etc. It is often used interchangeably, especially in the oil and gas industry, with the term “sustainable development,” with the latter being the more accepted of the two. The most widely accepted definition of sustainable development came from the Brundtland Commission in 1987, which defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The concept has since expanded and become increasingly important to the oil and gas industry.
Although sustainability seems to be a recent concern, it has been discussed and developed for many years. There have been many summits, meetings, and conferences that have focused on sustainability and sustainable development in both the broad sense and one that is more specific to certain industries (see Fig. 1).
The most important of these events were the Brundtland Commission and subsequent report (Our Common Future) published in 1987 that defined the term sustainable development. In a later summit in 2002 in Johannesburg, the three pillars of sustainable development were established and an action plan for all three of these pillars was mapped out in Agenda 21 (See Fig. 2). Another important series of events were the Earth Summits (also known as the United Nations Conferences on Sustainable Development or Rio +5, +10, etc.) held by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social affairs.
The most recent conference took place in 2012, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, or Earth Summit 2012, whose objectives were (1) securing renewed political commitment for sustainable development, (2) assessing the progress and implementation gaps in meeting previous commitments, and (3) addressing new and emerging challenges. Discussions focused on two main themes: (1) How to build a green economy to achieve sustainable development and lift people out of poverty, including support for developing countries that will allow them to find a green path for development. (2) How to improve international coordination for sustainable development by building an institutional framework.
The conference had strong business participation along with political, which was good since it is businesses that can help with sustainable development. It also led to an agreement to develop sustainable development goals, as well as having strengthened the UN Environment program, but also, more importantly for the oil and gas industry, promoted sustainability reporting and integration, along with making a commitment to phase out fossil fuel subsidies.
After Rio +20 and future implications
There are now four dimensions of sustainable development: economic development, social inclusion, environmental sustainability, and good governance including peace and security. When it comes to energy, there has been a proposed goal to secure sustainable energy and double the share of renewable energy. Also, there is a goal to ensure universal access to modern energy, meaning not just renewables, but energy that will help developing nations to enable them to develop economically and safely. Along with the proposed goal at Rio +20 to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, there is also a goal to double the rate of improvement in energy efficiency.
The implications of these goals and sustainability conferences/events on the oil and gas industry affect everyone involved (NGOs, investors, governments, customers), and the direct consequences of those affected are to consider the following:
- The role it plays in the energy mix—how it’s important/will be around and its different role around the world
- Energy efficiency—in production of oil and gas and in use of products
- Sustainability reporting—communicate performance to stakeholders
- When considering these consequences, it might mean companies would have to consider alternatives, change portfolios, find balance between energy efficient investments and outputs, and become more transparent to stakeholders not just for PR, but to get to the point of challenges and struggles and to find solutions.
Sustainability vs. sustainable development
While stated previously that the terms are used interchangeably, there is still a subtle difference between the two terms. Sustainability tends to be narrower in its definition and application toward certain aspects and is often used in conjunction with sustaining renewable resources. “It is an inherent characteristic of healthy social and environmental systems. It is achieved by maintaining or enhancing various system capacities… so that the system can withstand external shocks and return to normal functioning.” When defined like this, it leads people to think that energy fuels are not part of a sustainable future because sustainability would not be characteristic of nonrenewable resources.
Sustainable development, on the other hand, “involves managing resources in a way that is conducive to long-term wealth creation and the maintenance of capital.” This means that energy fuels can be included because they are an important source of wealth and creation and to human well-being. “Sustainable development is a framework that can deal with open, dynamic, and integrated systems, and one that acknowledges the interconnectedness of society, the economy, and the environment.” It is a process, rather than a destination (like the term sustainability implies), and “can be thought of as a frame for interactive assessment and decision making intended to achieve an evolving set of goals.”
Oil and gas industry's role in sustainability
The oil and gas industry has an important role in sustainability and achieving a sustainable development. The balance between all three pillars of sustainable development will be a challenge, and a “plentiful and economic supply of energy is a requirement for the economic and social pillars of sustainable development.” Oil and gas will clearly be a big component of that energy until alternative energy sources become more economical and widespread. During that transition, “the oil and gas industry has an important role to play in managing its operations safely and in reducing emissions, discharges and ecological impact while providing energy at a reasonable cost.” In the meantime, the industry can work now in trying to improve all areas of sustainability and their impact on the environment, economy, and society.
With talk and discussion of reaching a peak output and subsequent depletion and decline of oil/fossil fuels, there is worry about the need for alternative fuels and the prediction of oil and gas industry companies to become obsolete. While this decline is noticeable, it is still many years in the future. “The term ‘sustainable development’ in the oil and gas industry should not be used to mean sustaining the production of the product indefinitely. Rather it should mean meeting the needs of the global society for oil and gas at a reasonable cost, safely and with minimal impact on the environment until a suitable alternate energy source is available.” Essentially, the oil and gas industry needs to learn to adapt and expand to ensure sustainable development by whatever fuels become available. “Petroleum professions have an ethical obligation to consider the most effective uses of limited, depleting, and very valuable oil and natural gas resources.”
If the main goal of sustainability and sustainable development is to make sure that the world achieves a balance of economic development, environmental responsibility, and social progress, then there is no way to accomplish this if there are many countries that do not have access to energy to develop, maintain, and improve qualities of life and societal progress. “Petroleum and its products will need to play a continuing role in extending modern quality-of-life benefits to an increasing share of the world’s population.”
- Provide the technology, capital, trained personnel and organization to meet the needs of society for oil and gas safely and economically until alternate energy sources are available.
- Minimize the impact of its operations on the environment.
- Contribute to policy development by working constructively with all parts of civil society.
- Support the social objectives of the communities in which we operate.
- Demonstrate a high ethical standard.
- Along with improving these roles, the transition to a more sustainable future means that petroleum engineers need to be looking forward by:
- Informing themselves of the breadth of the issues
- Maximizing the value of increasingly precious oil and natural gas production, while mitigating environmental impacts, and seeking ways to optimize the use of petroleum
- Supporting local development of petroleum energy resources in developing countries
- Finding ways to extend the use of oil and gas, while supporting the market entry of new energy sources through creatively hybridized systems
- World Commission on Environment and Development. 1987. Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. Final report, transmitted to the General Assembly as an Annex to document A/42/427 - Development and International Cooperation Environment, Oslo, Norway (March 1987). http://www.un-documents.net/our-common-future.pdf
- Cheney, Libby, and Sullivan, Brian. 2013. Overview of sustainable development trends. SPE Web Events Webinar presented 18 September 2013.
- Wikipedia. 2014. United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (26 August 2014 revision), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_Conference_on_Sustainable_Development (accessed 9 October 2014).
- Shields, D., Verga, F., and Blengini, G.A. 2013. Sustainability Versus Sustainable Development: The Case of Shale Gas. Presented at the EAGE Annual Conference & Exhibition incorporating SPE Europec, London, 10-13 June. SPE-164822-MS. http://dx.doi.org/10.2118/164822-MS.
- Arscott, L. 2003. Sustainable Development in the Oil and Gas Industry. Presented at the SPE/EPA/DOE Exploration and Production Environmental Conference, San Antonio, Texas, 10-12 March. SPE-83062-MS. http://dx.doi.org/10.2118/83062-MS.
- Ebenhack, B.W. and Martinez, D.M. 2008. What Does Sustainability Mean to Petroleum? Presented at the SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition, Denver, Colorado, 21-24 September. SPE-116222-MS. http://dx.doi.org/10.2118/116222-MS.
Noteworthy papers in OnePetro
Adham, S. and Minier-Matar, J. 2009. Water Sustainability and the Petroleum Industry. Presented at the International Petroleum Technology Conference, Doha, Qatar, 7-9 December. IPTC-13347-MS. http://dx.doi.org/10.2523/13347-MS.
Arscott, L. 2003. Sustainable Development in the Oil and Gas Industry. Presented at the SPE/EPA/DOE Exploration and Production Environmental Conference, San Antonio, Texas, 10-12 March. SPE-83062-MS. http://dx.doi.org/10.2118/83062-MS.
Baxter, T., Bebbington, J., and Cutteridge, D. 2002. The Sustainability Assessment Model (SAM). Presented at the SPE International Conference on Health, Safety and Environment in Oil and Gas Exploration and Production, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 20-22 March. SPE-73968-MS.http://dx.doi.org/10.2118/73968-MS.
Baxter, T., Bebbington, J., Cutteridge, D. et al. 2003. The Sustainability Assessment Model (SAM): Measuring Sustainable Development Performance. Presented at the Offshore Europe, Aberdeen, United Kingdom, 2-5 September. SPE-83986-MS. http://dx.doi.org/10.2118/83986-MS.
Boyle, B. and Depraz, S. 2006. Oil and Gas Industry Guidance on Voluntary Sustainability Reporting. Presented at the SPE International Health, Safety & Environment Conference, Abu Dhabi, UAE, 2-4 April. SPE-98585-MS. http://dx.doi.org/10.2118/98585-MS.
Bradley, A.S. and Hartog, J.J. 1998. Sustainable Development - How to Assess Your Contribution? Presented at the SPE International Conference on Health, Safety, and Environment in Oil and Gas Exploration and Production, Caracas, Venezuela, 7-10 June. SPE-46878-MS.http://dx.doi.org/10.2118/46878-MS.
Browne, B. 1998. Strategies for Sustainable Development. Presented at the SPE International Conference on Health, Safety, and Environment in Oil and Gas Exploration and Production, Caracas, Venezuela, 7-10 June. SPE-46701-MS. http://dx.doi.org/10.2118/46701-MS.
Colmer, R.A. 2007. People and Sustainable Development. Presented at the Offshore Europe, Aberdeen, Scotland, U.K., 4-7 September. SPE-108489-MS. http://dx.doi.org/10.2118/108489-MS.
Delfgaauw, T. 2000. PUBLIC INVOLVEMENT IN DECISION-MAKING: Shell, sustainable development & stakeholder engagement. Presented at the 16th World Petroleum Congress, Calgary, Canada, 11-15 June. WPC-30031. https://www.onepetro.org/conference-paper/WPC-30031.
Dell, J. and Hart, V. 2014. Leveraging Sustainability in the Oil and Gas Supply Chain. Presented at the SPE International Conference on Health, Safety, and Environment, Long Beach, California, USA, 17-19 March. SPE-168485-MS. http://dx.doi.org/10.2118/168485-MS.
Dieck-Assad, F.A. 2005. The Role of Energy in Sustainable Development: The Mexican Case. Presented at the Canadian International Petroleum Conference, Calgary, Alberta, 7-9 June. PETSOC-2005-054. http://dx.doi.org/10.2118/2005-054.
Ebenhack, B.W. and Martinez, D.M. 2008. What Does Sustainability Mean to Petroleum? Presented at the SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition, Denver, Colorado, 21-24 September. SPE-116222-MS. http://dx.doi.org/10.2118/116222-MS.
Holgate, M.J.M., Kerr, S.A., King, A. et al. 2000. Prioritising Environmental Investment through Sustainable Development Targets. Presented at the SPE International Conference on Health, Safety and Environment in Oil and Gas Exploration and Production, Stavanger, Norway, 26-28 June. SPE-61108-MS. http://dx.doi.org/10.2118/61108-MS.
Knott, M.G., Rosenbeck, J., and Burnham, M. 2014. Sustainability: The Role of SH&E Professionals. Professional Safety 59 (9). ASSE-14-09-35.https://www.onepetro.org/journal-paper/ASSE-14-09-35.
Muir, J., Reidinger, R., and Chan, Y.M. 2002. Capturing Sustainability Issues in the Oil and Gas Industry. Presented at the SPE International Conference on Health, Safety and Environment in Oil and Gas Exploration and Production, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 20-22 March. SPE-73971-MS.http://dx.doi.org/10.2118/73971-MS.
Ristau, C.A. and Knight, B. 2008. Sustainable Development - End Game Is Good Governance. Presented at the SPE International Conference on Health, Safety, and Environment in Oil and Gas Exploration and Production, Nice, France, 15-17 April. SPE-111804-MS.http://dx.doi.org/10.2118/111804-MS.
Sherman, R.J. 2008. Sustainable Development and Change Management. Presented at the SPE International Conference on Health, Safety, and Environment in Oil and Gas Exploration and Production, Nice, France, 15-17 April. SPE-111880-MS. http://dx.doi.org/10.2118/111880-MS.
Shields, D., Verga, F., and Blengini, G.A. 2013. Sustainability Versus Sustainable Development: The Case of Shale Gas. Presented at the EAGE Annual Conference & Exhibition incorporating SPE Europec, London, 10-13 June. SPE-164822-MS. http://dx.doi.org/10.2118/164822-MS.
Smith, A.L. 1998. Integrated Risk Management: The Millennium Key to Sustainable Development. J Pet Technol 50 (9): 73 - 81. SPE-51006-JPT.http://dx.doi.org/10.2118/51006-JPT.
Tompkins, W. 1998. An Integrated Approach Towards Sustainable Development. J Can Pet Technol 37 (11). PETSOC-98-11-GE.http://dx.doi.org/10.2118/98-11-GE.
Wilcoxon, B.R. and Cramer, D.F. 2002. Strategic Sustainability Integration: The Next Step in the Journey. Presented at the SPE International Petroleum Conference and Exhibition in Mexico, Villahermosa, Mexico, 10-12 February. SPE-74409-MS. http://dx.doi.org/10.2118/74409-MS.
Wolff, R., Zaring, O., Furuholt, E. et al. 2000. Indicators for Sustainable Development. Presented at the SPE International Conference on Health, Safety and Environment in Oil and Gas Exploration and Production, Stavanger, Norway, 26-28 June. SPE-61320-MS.http://dx.doi.org/10.2118/61320-MS.
Castellanos, Ilse. 2013. Sustainable Development – Local Stakeholder Engagement – A Practitioner’s Perspective. https://webevents.spe.org/products/sustainable-developmentlocal-stakeholder-engagementa-practitioners-perspective
Cheney, Libby, Charles Curlee, and Brian Sullivan. 2013. Overview of Sustainable Development Trends. https://webevents.spe.org/products/overview-of-sustainable-development-trends
Hollas, David, Carmen Santamaria, and Melanie Brooke-Lander. 2013. A Sustainability Perspective on the Real-World Environmental Impacts, Solutions and Best Practices across the Stages of the E&P Lifecycle – from Seismic Acquisition to Abandonment. https://webevents.spe.org/products/a-sustainability-perspective-on-the-real-world-environmental-impacts-solutions-and-best-practices-across-the-stages-of-the-ep-lifecyclefrom-seismic-acquisition-to-abandonment
Lefsrud, Lianne M. 2011. Sustainability Success: How Are You Meeting the Challenge? The OGM (in press; published 20 June 2011).http://theogm.com/2011/06/20/sustainability-success-how-are-you-meeting-the-challenge/
Arscott, Lynn. 2004. Sustainable Development in the Oil and Gas Industry. J Energy Resour Technol 126 (1): 1-5.http://dx.doi.org/10.1115/1.1653768
Pies, Ingo, von Winning, Alexandra, Sardison, Markus, and Girlich, Katrin. 2010. Sustainability in the Petroleum Industry: Theory and Practice of Voluntary Self-Committments. http://wcms.uzi.uni-halle.de/download.php?down=14466&elem=2278964
IPIECA. 2009. Biofuels, sustainability, and the petroleum industry. http://www.ipieca.org/publication/biofuels-sustainability-and-petroleum-industry
Bradbrook, Adrian J. and Ottinger, Richard L. ed. 2003. Energy Law and Sustainable Development.http://www.ugandaoilandgas.com/linked/sustainable%20development%20in%20the%20petroleum%20sector.pdf
Turek, Michael. 2013. Sustainable Development and Oil and Gas Industry. http://youngpetro.org/2013/12/30/sustainable-development-and-oil-and-gas-industry/
Krupnick, Alan J. and Kopp, Raymond J. 2014. Attaining Sustainable Development of Oil and Gas in North America: A Review of the Environmental Regulatory Landscape. http://www.goldmansachs.com/our-thinking/our-conferences/north-american-energy-summit/reports/rff-attaining-sustainable-development.pdf
IPIECA. 2013. Sustainability Reporting. http://www.ipieca.org/focus-area/reporting
Al Khalifa, Abdul Jaleel. 2011. Sustainable Development in the Petroleum Industry.http://www.dragonoil.com/media/29384/JaleelAlKhalifaSustainableDevelopmentInPetroleumIndustry18Apri11.pdf
United Nations. Sustainable Development. http://www.un.org/en/ga/president/65/issues/sustdev.shtml
Environmental Protection Agency. Sustainability Primer. http://epa.gov/ncer/rfa/forms/sustainability_primer_v7.pdf
Kates, Robert W., Parris, Thomas M., and Leiserowitz, Anthony A. 2005. What is Sustainable Development?http://www.hks.harvard.edu/sustsci/ists/docs/whatisSD_env_kates_0504.pdf