By Bill Moore, XONA
On many fronts, 2020 is a year of adaptation and refinement. This is especially true for utilities, like oil and gas producers, who are working to develop critical remote operations during this challenging time. Not only has the global Coronavirus pandemic come with enormous health and economic consequences, but other factors have forced the oil and gas sector to adjust their approaches. Declining prices and an increasingly competitive marketplace are compelling companies to do more with less. Even traditionally more stable utilities, like water and electricity, are struggling.
Although utilities can’t control external forces, they can ensure that their internal protocols are prepared to meet the moment. As an assessment by PwC concludes, “even the best thought-out and thoroughly tested business continuity plans should be adaptable to fully address the fast-moving and unknown variables of an outbreak like COVID-19.” In other words, COVID-19 has illuminated existing shortcomings that companies will need to address both to survive now and to thrive in the future.
For utilities, oil and gas producers, and pumping facilities, this means adopting remote operations capabilities that facilitate business continuity, workplace flexibility, and operational efficiency. When doing so, here are three priorities to consider.
#1 OPTIMIZE YOUR WORKFORCE
The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the importance of remotely operating pumping stations and other production-level facilities. Worker safety protocols, employee preferences, and social distancing guidelines are forcing companies to keep fewer people on-site, subsequently reducing productivity if these critical systems cannot be remotely operated.
Of course, even before the pandemic, oil and gas producers were struggling to find enough workers. While the pandemic has forced many companies to make cuts, temporarily inflating the talent pool, many producers can’t find enough employees to compensate for an otherwise aging workforce.
As a result, utilities across many industries should optimize their workforce by enabling remote operations. Not only does this allow on-site employees to operate pumping equipment without exposing themselves to other, potentially ill, employees, but it also expands the available talent pool, enabling companies to pull from the global workforce that can help them meet demand.
In reality, the pandemic has only accelerated an inevitable industry shift. As Daniel Yergin, vice chairman at IHS Markit, a London-based informational analysis provider, concludes, “It’s really like a forced march to digitalization. Manual labor will probably shift to maintenance rather than actually working on the rig floor and handling pipe.”
Especially for offshore drilling and pumping stations, the number of on-site workers is expected to drop by 75 percent, something that will both reduce costs and improve worker safety. By embracing this shift, utilities can plan to thrive in the present while preparing for the future.
#2 ACCOUNT FOR CYBERSECURITY
Today’s cybersecurity threat landscape is expansive, and the rapid digitization of utilities and producers has created an immediate need for secure access platforms that are resilient and compliance-ready.
Cybersecurity concerns at pumping facilities are often associated with water suppliers. For example, in April, Israel endured a major cyberattack to its water infrastructure, as bad actors attempted to infiltrate control systems, plants, and pumping stations.
However, the implementation of smart pumps and remote access capabilities can increase the cybersecurity risks for utilities, energy producers, and pumping facilities. In this environment, companies adopting a remote operations capability need to include:
- Multi-factor authentication
- Protocol isolation
- Unidirectional mediated secure file transfer
- Full user access logging and recording
- System and/or application access control
#3 MAXIMIZE EFFICIENCY
In May, Rystad Energy, an independent energy research and business intelligence company, found that growth in the oil and gas sector was primarily driven by remote work and “cost-saving remote work technologies.” As companies struggle to maintain operations in a difficult economy, maximizing efficiency will be a key component of their success.
Notably, remote operations capabilities can help contain spending by reducing facilities management and acquisition expenses and other costs associated with securing on-site employees during a pandemic.
In addition to the technical benefits of remote operations capability, these features have shown to increase employee happiness and well-being, while driving down attrition so that companies can best maintain employee continuity during an already-disruptive time.
BONUS: PRIORITIZE SIMPLICITY AND ADAPTABILITY
Remote operations capability for critical industrial control is the future, but it’s a novel feature for workers right now. Therefore, when deploying remote operations, opt for easy-to-use and simple-to-install software that can reduce the learning curve, ensuring continuity at a critical time.
Of course, there is considerable uncertainty about the pandemic moving forward, and companies will need to continue to be adaptable and able to quickly shift employees off-site if necessary.
In an extensive assessment of the post-COVID-19 environment for utilities, producers, and pumping facilities, Mckinsey and Co. notes that “Leading companies will use the crisis to redefine their reasons for being and their basis for distinctiveness.”
This conclusion is both aspirational and possible. When it comes to supporting employees and consumers, remote user access capabilities will play a prominent role in its fulfillment. Like any significant shift, utilities, energy producers, and pumping stations will need to adapt to meet the moment. Remote operations is the future, and it’s the tool that we need to excel during these difficult days.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bill Moore is CEO and founder of Xona, providers of a unique “zero trust” user access platform especially tailored for remote operational technology (OT) sites. He is currently working with global power generation and distribution customers to reduce their remote operations costs and cyber risks. Moore brings more than twenty years’ experience in security and the high-tech industry, including positions in sales, marketing, engineering, and operations For more information, visit www.xonasystems.com.
MODERN PUMPING TODAY, September 2020
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