The importance of alternative fuel and unconventional energy sources

Perspective interview: Melissa Stark shares her insights on unconventional resources, and how energy unexpectedly unleashed her inner scientist.

What do you see as the most important thing that will happen to the energy industry in the next five to 10 years?

I’m not sure there is any single thing. Having worked on alternative and unconventional energy resources for the past few years, I can point to many important things. Certainly, international development of shale gas/tight gas and shale oil/tight oil comes to mind first. But there is also the advent of alternative fuels and a significant increase in fuel efficiency due to light weighting and hybridization, and these trends will also impact the fuel mix. I believe science and engineering—across many areas such as nanotechnology, material science, biotechnology, electrochemistry—will continue to drive breakthroughs.

How did you end up in the energy industry?

I started out in California with Accenture working on a supply chain network design project with Levi Strauss. I transferred to London in 1994 and went from what could be considered by some as a “glamorous” job in downtown San Francisco to Peterhead, Scotland working on offshore logistics. I was at a distribution center site where the supply ships were going out to the rigs, wearing a hard hat to work every day and eating white bread with butter and ham for lunch. I was surprised to find that I loved it—the sheer scale of the operation, the relevance of the energy industry to economic development and the fact that this is where physical trading meets paper trading. Looking at storage tanks and pipelines, the midstream assets, you can literally see commodity supply, and you are at a place where you can see physical trading turn into paper.

What part of your career have you enjoyed the most?

I have worked all over the energy industry—starting in the upstream, working later in the downstream and alternative energy and now in unconventionals. In all the areas, I have worked in supply chain, strategy or decision support. I think I am having the best time now because there are so many aspects of unconventionals, and I can leverage what I have learned over the past 20 years. In addition to being an upstream play, technology and sustainable development are particularly critical, so I can build on what I learned working in alternative energy. The volume of wells is akin to manufacturing, and midstream and transport are critical to the economics.

Why are unconventional energy sources important internationally now?

Unconventional resources, including shale gas, tight gas, shale oil and tight oil, have revolutionized the energy landscape in the United States, using new technologies to access reserves that developers previously couldn’t get to. There are many countries around the world with estimated technically recoverable resources of the same magnitude as the United States and fiscal regimes encouraging the development of these resources.

Besides the size of the potential resources and a favorable fiscal regime, there are several other factors developers need to consider—things like geology, including availability of data, quality of the rock and how drilling and completion technology might need to be adapted to local rock formations.

Other factors include land access and operability, including availability of water, population density and the power of nongovernmental organizations, They need to consider whether there is an existing unconventional services sector to support development, existing distribution networks to get the product to market, level of competition that could potentially divert focus, investment and skills away from shale and, finally, whether there is a skilled oil and gas workforce to support future development.

What do you want to do in the future?

I want to stay with unconventionals—it’s an area that’s going to take a long time to develop. Further into the future? I’ve always enjoyed math and both my parents are engineers, but I didn’t realize how much I liked science until I started working in alternative fuels. I enjoy working with scientists and am fascinated by the potential transformative impact of everything nanotechnology and material science, to electrochemistry, to biotechnology.

What do you enjoy more—writing or speaking?

While I do regularly go out and speak in conferences and other presentations, I enjoy the opportunity to learn and understand new things, and try to write on new topics and highlight perspectives that other people haven’t written about. I enjoy the process of discovery and development, and it’s exciting to apply those findings to my work.

What do you do outside of work?

When I’m not working, I enjoy spending time with my family. My two sons, who are 11 and 7 years old, are in several sports, and I like to be able to watch them. My older son is in track and karate, and my younger son swims and plays baseball, and they both ski, among other things. Not much time for anything else!

As an American who has been in the UK for 20 years—do you feel like a local at this point?

I wouldn’t say I feel like a local—I’d say I’m more of a mixture of both countries. In the UK, there are things I miss about the US, but if I’m gone from the UK for a long time, I miss it as well—although not necessarily the weather. I enjoy being here, but maybe as I get older I’d like to go somewhere where it doesn’t rain so much.

Do you have any pointers for women coming up in the ranks in the energy industry?

As a woman, there are times when you could face some biases, especially in first impressions. But I think it comes down to some practical recommendations. I would encourage women to know your content and be well prepared—extra prepared, if needed. Don’t try and wing it. Be confident about your work, be respectfully challenging and be part of the conversation. Do this and there shouldn’t be any barriers in the oil and gas industry. There may be times where it can be more difficult, for example, if women need flexibility when having families. In those cases, my recommendation is to be very clear about your goals, the roles you choose—what roles you can take on to perform competitively. In certain companies, there may be global roles that could enable you to work hours that give you the flexibility you need.