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Interview

Alain Lehner – President, Pole Avenia – France

The president of Pole Avenia, France’s only cluster focusing on hydrocarbons, discusses his association’s role in promoting promising innovative oil and gas companies. He also gives insight into the expertise that can be found in the Aquitaine region.  

Could you briefly introduce Pole Avenia and its history to our audience?

Pole Avenia, which is based in Pau, stands for “Avenir Energie Innovation Aquitaine“. It was founded in 2008 as a simple cluster and became a competitiveness cluster in 2010. This implies that we are entitled to award an official label to promising and innovative companies, which are in turn granted access to funding opportunities from local or national authorities. The Pole Avenia therefore reviews research projects and makes recommendations for review by government experts, both at the regional and national level. These governmental loans can reach USD 10 million, depending on the size of the initial project.

Our mandate is to foster innovation, collaborative research and technology development for a sustainable use of the subsurface. We are the only hydrocarbons competitive cluster in France and we are financed by regional and national funds. We also work in cooperation with entities like Total Development Regional for instance , which allocates a portion of its budget to support innovative SMEs. Certain companies finance specific studies conducted by Pole Avenia.

In concrete terms, how do Pole Avenia’s efforts enable French companies to assume a leading role domestically and internationally in the field of oil and gas?

We undertake different actions to fulfil this objective. Pole Avenia is now composed of 150 members (from 50 in 2013) including universities, laboratories and research institutes. Pole Avenia, which was initially focused on CO2 storage, has recently enlarged its scope of activities by integrating hydrocarbon recovery and geothermal activities under its umbrella. Pole Avenia therefore addresses all subsurface activities and our two main objectives are to first, build partnerships and secondly, to develop and deploy new technologies applied to geoscience and subsurface engineering.

We also partner with other competitiveness clusters when relevant synergies can be fostered. We have for example initiated a partnership with a competitiveness cluster focused on aerospace technology, which develop specific techniques which can play role in the oil and gas sector. As I said, Pole Avenia is essentially given the mandate to bolster innovation. Simply awarding a label is not necessarily innovation-conducive. We have therefore introduced three innovation clubs focused on enhanced oil recovery, monitoring and drilling/well and featuring professionals and engineers from the oil and gas sector.

These clubs are presided by a team of 3 experts who are tasked to animate a selection of 20-25 innovative companies and review the potential of the technologies they developed. In the first meeting, the selected companies introduce their technology to the club as well as the present limitations. Follows several brainstorming sessions to define the present gap in the technology and how we could respond to this challenge with new products. Their feasibility, their adaptability in different fields and issues a set of guidelines and recommendations are proposed and implemented when possible between members of the club..

Lastly, member companies can for instance submit a problem to the club, which in turn tries to find innovative solutions to overcome the technological barriers.

In 2012, an audit was performed on 71 clusters in France. At the time, Pole Avenia was deemed to be less effective than its counterparts. Which conclusions did you draw from this analysis and how has Pole Avenia overcome these challenges?

Until 2012, Pole Avenia was indeed less efficient, comprised less than 50 members and barely benefited from any private funding . Since 2013 , a new strategy has therefore been set up to develop all subsurface technology related to hydrocarbons , geothermal and storage activities. In France, we are the only cluster out of 71 which is doing that , and this change has been successful. I am proud to say that today, we are performing in a much more efficient way.

Pole Avenia is also in charge of promoting the know-how of the Aquitaine region (southwest France). How do you raise this international awareness?

Many companies in Aquitaine carry a valuable know how like Total’s center of research which employs 2,900 people in Pau for instance. Also, the Lacq gas field – which is no longer in production – has nevertheless created a certain dynamic in the area and many industries work around the field. The region is still attracting many others experts who work for example in the aerospace, chemicals and pharmaceuticals sectors.

Regarding our international developments, I went to Abu Dhabi where I presented Pole Avenia’s activity and its prominent members in order to raise awareness and increase our international visibility. We have recently received a Russian delegation from LuKoil and Gazprom. These foreign actors are interested in Pole Avenia’s model and we have subsequently been conveyed to Russia to introduce our philosophy for innovation. Following our visit to Abu Dhabi , we are now organizing in the area a visit of ADNOC in May, as well as a Mexican delegation in July and this will be a great opportunity for our members which will present their technology.

Pole Avenia recognizes that even under the most optimistic predictions of renewable energy development, hydrocarbons will still represent around 40 percent of France’s energy mix by 2030. Why do you think there is so much reluctance in France to acknowledge this reality?

We are visiting government officials, academics, and analysts in the oil and gas industry to highlight the key role that hydrocarbons will still play in the energy mix and express the fear that hydrocarbons are being disregarded. By 2030, France will import 30 to 40 percent of its energy which represents a bill of $60 billion and contribute significantly to the country’s deficit. If we project ourselves to 2050, all figures will increase and may reach more than USD 85 billion deficit. We therefore have to develop technologies to produce conventional and unconventional sources of energy in France: coal bed methane (CBM), geothermal, shale oil and gas.

Furthermore, the development of shale oil and gas elsewhere is rendering the industry ever more competitive and leading to the reintroduction of coal in the energy mix in various countries. If France does not want to resort to such drastic solutions, it must recognize the still important role of oil and gas.

One of role of Pole Avenia consists in restoring a better image of the oil and gas industry to the eyes of the government. We must accept the authorities reservations and work alongside. For example, if we want shale oil and gas to be developed in France, the solution is not to criticize national authorities but rather to provide safe and innovative tools and explain their applications.

France is home to talented engineers, tremendous technology and comprehensive solutions for seed stage financing. France’s competitive advantage definitely resides in its capacity to produce high end and high value added solutions.

What do you think will emanate from the next OPEC meeting?

I believe that nothing will stem from the upcoming OPEC meeting because certain countries are still willing to maximize production. If production is reduced, mainly Russia, Venezuela and Iran will benefit from the situation. High levels of production are enabling OPEC countries to contain the development of shale oil. Technology improvements in the development of shale oil are posing a real challenge to, since it allows producing at much lower costs than before. It will therefore be more difficult to reduce oversupply.

 

Click here to read more articles and interviews from France, and to download the latest free oil and gas report on the country.

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