Bill Loveless from Platts Energy Week recently interviewed Mark Little, GE’s chief technology officer, about the company’s interests in the oil and gas extraction sector. Loveless and Little discussed GE’s planned investments into an Oklahoma-based research center that will be the first GE technology development laboratory that is focused on a single business sector.
Mark Little: We’re very excited about going to Oklahoma. We have a global network of research centers that support all of our businesses. The first one was in upstate New York. First industrial research lab ever in the United States. We built out from that to India, China, Germany, Brazil, other places in the US. We’re going to Oklahoma for the first time with the intent of having a single business focused center. All these other centers support every business. This one will be focused solely on oil and gas.
Why are we doing that? There’s such a rich technology opportunity here to get technology into the oil and gas space. We wanted to really focus on that; make a showcase for our customers from around the world to come and see this and to help us develop technologies that they need to make their operations more efficient and more productive.
After watching that interview, do you have any more doubt about why GE leaders spend little or no time marketing new nuclear power plants that would reduce the growing demand for natural gas in the lucrative US electrical power market?
From a short term income point of view, GE has wisely chosen a high margin part of the oil and gas business that plays well with their exceptional skills in specialized materials and remote sensing. Not only does deep drilling require sophisticated materials, but it also requires mobile generators and an increasingly large array of treatment systems. Since hydraulically fractured wells exhibit depletion rates in the 5-10% per month range, maintaining a steady supply of gas from shale rock formations that require fracking means a continuing need to drill an ever larger number of wells.
Building machinery and technology to support oil and gas extraction may be a great business for GE; but what does this business focus do for the rest of us over the longer term?
If the profits from GE’s growing wind, water, oil and gas businesses were being invested in refining, marketing and deploying technology like ABWRs and ESBWRs that would leave us in a stronger energy position in the future, perhaps I would not feel the same way. It seems to me that the oil and gas production boomlet in the US has discouraged companies like GE from investing time and money into producing more reliable, longer lasting, low-emission fission energy technology.
Sure, unconventional oil and gas extraction seems to be the “in thing” these days in the energy market. I have often heard GE leaders say that they are simply meeting the needs that their customers have asked them to meet and that few customers are demanding new nuclear plants. However, bandwagon decision making can result in boom and bust cycles that generally do not end well for the masses. They are often quite beneficial for corporate leaders who bank their bonuses during the good times and depend on the rest of us to help them weather the bad times.