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Research and innovation key to ensuring we get most out of oil and gas resources

BRITAIN'S oil and gas industry, focused on Aberdeen, attracted not one but two Cabinet visits last week.

There could hardly be a better indication of the industry's importance to the UK, even as we recognise that without more research, training and innovation, our energy-rich future is not assured.

UK oil production dropped down 40% over the past three years and is now at the same level as in 1977. Last year saw just 15 exploration wells drilled, the lowest number since the North Sea opened up to the drill bit 50 years ago.

The Wood Report into the industry recommends collaboration from the industry, technical research, higher education and Government. For this to succeed, academic input is vital. A collegiate and inclusive network of research and innovation enhances the UK's worldwide reputation.

As educators, we want to inform, train and produce the next generation of energy experts to have the technical understanding, scientific background, industry knowledge and pre-requisite environmental and regulatory awareness to make the changes needed.

Oil and gas reserves are finite, yet our demand for quick and easy energy is not. How we meet this challenge has stirred a much-polarised debate. Do we carry on using traditional extraction methods, turn to sustainable and renewable energy or a combination of both?

If we do not get this right, the capacity to extend the life of mature basins such as the North Sea and meet our energy needs will be severely tested and the lights will go out.

We need to use the expertise and know-how of our current workforce to make innovative techniques and methods work successfully; reduce the environmental impact of oil and gas exploration and extraction and help the sector put earth and environmental science at the heart of responsible management of natural resources.

In the past 12 months, the oil and gas sector's importance in the economic and social well-being of the UK has been more widely recognised. It has led to an investment boom to meet the needs of the international petroleum industry and the global demand for oil and gas.

Heriot-Watt University's Institute of Petroleum Engineering (IPE) is a global exemplar of excellence in petroleum engineering and petroleum geosciences, based on skill and experience.

We have established an £8 million national Centre for Doctoral Training, comprising a partnership of 19 academic and research council affiliates and supported by UK's Natural Environment Research Council that will create some 90 experts in geoscience and environmental science related to the oil and gas sector over the next six years.

Our £3m Shell Centre for Exploration Geoscience focuses on applied research into current exploration challenges and the Charles Lyell Centre for Earth and Marine Science and Technology brings together the combined forces of the British Geological Survey and academic experts in a research centre based at Heriot-Watt's Edinburgh campus.

Just last week, again in Aberdeen, a £10.6m Oil & Gas Innovation Centre was announced. It draws on 12 Scottish universities, industry support and Government funding through the Scottish Funding Council.

These are all exciting new collaborations between the private sector and higher education and will provide demand-led science and engineering research, as well as filling skills gaps.

Principal operators and global service companies will all benefit from such collaborations as they gain cutting-edge knowledge which can then be transformed into improved productivity and profitability.

Our next generation of geoscience experts will not only need to be well equipped in addressing current and future energy needs, but also to be aware of new and novel techniques for enhanced oil recovery so that we can maximise production where oil has already been found. They will also need to adopt new thinking, for example, in carbon capture and storage, which aims to deliver large-scale options for the UK, our students will seek to find ways of decoupling fossil fuel use from carbon emissions.

Success in this area could be used to help the UK achieve an energy system that is environmentally sustainable, socially acceptable and meets energy needs securely and affordably.

The investigation of the subsurface, whether for the purposes of exploration, enhanced production or carbon storage, demands forensic and specialised geoscientific skills to be deployed. There is a great need for talented geologists, geophysicists and reservoir engineers who are properly trained.

Academia will play a pivotal role in inspiring the next cohort to face the challenges that lie ahead. However, success will demand that we dismantle competitive academic barriers and adopt a new spirit of collaboration that links universities and industry, geoscience practitioners, environmentalists, regulators and policy makers to tackle the energy crisis that is upon us.

Professor John Underhill holds the chair of Exploration Geoscience in the Institute of Petroleum Engineering (IPE) at Heriot-Watt University.

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