Our CSG players need to get technical

The new year will be a challenging one for our coal seam gas industry but also a great opportunity for those operators that can get their head around information technology.

Despite dramatic falls in the oil price, industry analyst IBISWorld predicts that coal seam gas extraction will be Australia’s biggest growth industry this year with a dramatic 148 per cent increase in revenues. IBISWorld also predicts that petroleum exploration will be the fastest contracting industry in 2015 but that’s to be expected.

It would be a mistake to take these statistics at face value. While a good year for Australian CSG with increasing production volumes, the fall in the oil price to which export contracts are linked puts the industry under enormous pressure to control costs, just like the rest of the energy industry.

Companies that have grown up in an environment of rising energy prices must now operate on low margins. That means examining their business assumptions and investing for long-term sustainability. The good news is that there is plenty of waste and mismanagement to address. The bad news is that changes are long overdue and there will undoubtedly be some cultural resistance.

For a start, there is significant room for efficiency improvements in ongoing CSG projects with better information systems and coordination of activities. Companies could also improve efficiencies in asset maintenance and reign in their compliance costs. Such measures haven’t been a huge priority for the CSG industry – at least not until very recently.

Companies that are prepared to invest in the value chain – finding ways to work smarter and more cost efficiently – will be able to improve margins. Others, many of them service companies that subcontract to the major producers, may not survive to see energy prices bounce back, however long that turns out to be.

Information technology systems that provide real-time visibility into projects, maintenance and compliance are key to streamlining operations across the value chain. In this respect, however, the CSG industry is coming off a very low base with minimal investments in technology. Part of the issue is structural – the industry typically operates in a “siloed” fashion with different business units and contracting firms operating independently.

Another part of the issue is cultural. As a supplier that specialises in providing visibility and control over finance and operations for the oil & gas industry globally, one of IFS’s key value adds is integrating information across all aspects of the business. When talking to CSG companies, however, we’re told “that is not how we run things”. Maybe not, but 2015 is the year that will have to start changing.

Those changes start with technology improvements to break down information silos that make it difficult to operate efficiently, such as:

  1. Real-time visibility – It’s been said before but it bears repeating. You can’t improve what you can’t measure. Capturing and consolidating financial and operational information into a single system in real time has to be the first priority. Once you have the numbers in front of you, it’s not hard to identify how processes could be made more efficient. Of course, if the information is not real-time, then what you are looking at has already happened, so it may be too late to do anything about it. That’s why capturing information at the source and communicating it as things happen is so important.

  1. Instant communications – Stories about workers hanging around doing nothing while they wait for landholders to turn up are common in the CSG industry. While hard to imagine why in a world of instant communications, data networks in rural and remote locations may not be available or as reliable as they are in urban areas. Some investments may be needed to ensure that workers remain in constant communication. It’s not difficult to tap into a back-up satellite link, for example, and distribute it to mobile devices, something mining companies have been doing for years.

  1. Supplier portals – Just because different companies do the work doesn’t mean they can’t share information and cooperate. CSG producers can implement supplier portals so that services companies can see all the information they need to efficiently do the job and coordinate with other suppliers. Suppliers can also do job reporting on the spot via mobile apps so that the producer has real-time visibility of activities.

  1. Mobile apps – Just because many workers in the CSG industry don’t have computer experience doesn’t mean they can’t benefit from information technology. With modern enterprise software, it’s now a simple matter to access information and report back through mobile apps running on a phone, tablet or phablet. Getting people to use them may be more of a challenge. Companies may need to engage closely with their workforces to make apps consistent and easy to use – giving them the right information for each job, for example – to make sure that new systems are successfully adopted.

  1. Executive dashboards – While producers and service suppliers are aware of inefficiencies in their operations, many would currently struggle to quantify them or pinpoint exactly when they are happening. Establishing simple metrics and alerts around performance, cost and compliance, and monitoring them in real-time via graphical dashboards that responsible managers can see is a great way to get started.

  1. Monitor compliance – This is a key area where information systems can contribute to the long-term sustainability of the CSG industry. Creating a free flow of information between concerned parties like landholders and government is a valuable tool for establishing and maintaining trust. That in turn lessens the likelihood that more restrictive or onerous compliance requirements will be imposed. Enterprise information systems can also automate the reporting process and manage communications with different groups to reduce compliance costs.

Despite the industry’s strong momentum, 2015 will still be a very challenging year for coal seam gas but also a great opportunity for companies that are willing to invest in their own and the industry’s future.

Rob Stummer is Managing Director, Australia and New Zealand for global enterprise applications company IFS.

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