General Electric Co. is opening a new laboratory in Oklahoma, buying up related companies, and placing a big bet that cutting-edge science will improve profits for clients and reduce the environmental and health effects of fracking.
“We like the oil and gas base because we see the need for resources for a long time to come,” said Mark Little, a GE senior vice president. He said GE did “almost nothing” in oil and gas just over a decade ago but has invested more than $15 billion in the past few years.
GE doesn’t drill wells or produce oil or gas, but Little said the complexity of the fracking boom plays into the company strengths. As wells end up drilled horizontally at great depths in a variety of formations all around the country, and that means each location may require different techniques.
There are also big differences in how surrounding communities view the boom. There’s been little controversy in traditional oil and gas states such as Oklahoma, but nearby landowners in Pennsylvania, Colorado and other states complained of environmental and health effects.
“My own view is there things can be managed,” Little said of concerns about drilling, adding they need to be managed carefully. He drew a parallel to GE’s work with the aircraft industry, since many decades ago flying was a risky business, but the industry evolved so that even as the speed, distance and number of flights increased, overall safety improved greatly.
Little also pointed out GE has significant experience in wind energy, solar, and in nuclear power. “I think the world needs all of these kinds of systems,” Little said.
Little said the GE strategy ultimately comes down to looking at “minds and machines together.” For example, they have devices that can literally be put down into a well to give people on the surface information about exactly what’s happening a mile or two below ground.
“We’ll get more information than ever before,” he said, and that can be used to help improve production and profits, and to monitor and reduce environmental impacts.
One scientist said that the approach makes sense, and there are past examples of success.
Modern cars are “incomparably cleaner” than older ones, said Neil Donahue, a professor of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “There are some real technical issues that these folks at GE might be able to make real progress on.”