Project professionals from four different sectors share their thoughts about the road ahead for their sector after the pandemic
Ten months of being engulfed in a global health and economic crisis has exposed some hard truths about the limitations and vulnerabilities of humankind, even after the immense scientific and technological progress that we have made. In fact, one of the greatest signs of human progress – our interconnectivity in a ‘global village’ – has proved to be a major hindrance in containing the spread of the virus. However, the pandemic has also shown that there are no limits to human ingenuity and will to bounce back.
As consumer demand slumped across sectors and the need for medical supplies grew, cosmetics companies started producing sanitizers, car manufacturers converted their assembly lines to build ventilators, and technology companies in the forefront of artificial intelligence directed their efforts to help in medical research. There are also innumerable examples of individual acts of kindness, communities coming out to support the vulnerable, and organizations contributing to COVID-19 relief funds.
The crisis has also led organizations that had resisted change so far to quickly pivot to digital technologies and stay competitive. Change is coming to some of the most traditional industries, such as construction, oil and gas, and education. The pharmaceutical sector, which is at the center of global attention, is looking at unconventional and innovative methods to quickly bring out a vaccine. As companies navigate uncharted territory to move to a new reality, they will be looking toward their project professionals to enable that change.
We speak to project managers from three sectors – construction, oil and gas, and pharmaceutical – to bring to you their perspectives of the “new reality.”
Energy Sector: Changing Course
A sector that has felt a major blow due to the COVID-19 pandemic is oil and coal. Lockdowns and travel bans have led to a drastic drop in the demand for oil. Adding to that is the curtailment of industrial and commercial activities. As the lockdowns got extended, oil refineries were forced to cut down their throughput. Only the demand for LPG and domestic natural gas remained buoyant, thanks to most people working from home.
It is a catch-22 situation for policymakers since falling international oil prices help downstream oil refining companies like Indian Oil Corporation or Bharat Petroleum Corporation to achieve higher refining margins, thereby enhancing their profits. However, it negatively impacts the profitability of upstream oil companies like Oil and Natural Gas Corporation and Oil India Ltd. because they get paid for the crude oil as per prevailing international prices.
How the oil sector recovers will depend on how quickly the virus is contained, and the economic stimulus policies that the government announces.
As the demand for electricity went down during lockdowns, power producers had to cut down operations and shut down power generating stations. Many coal-based power stations have operated significantly below capacity for a good part of this year. The muted demand for coal has forced coal producing companies to either scale down their operations or borrow to tide over the current liquidity crunch.
Going forward, as natural gas prices fall further and power produced through the renewable route becomes cheaper, coal may face an existential problem. COVID-19 has led to renewed calls for sustainable business practices, of which one is to move away from coal-based power generation that is leading to global warming and environmental damage, and higher reliance on renewable sources of energy. I foresee more efforts to prolong the life of coal as a fuel in a new avatar of “clean coal.” Clean coal introduces the latest mining technology to curb environmental pollution and coal washing to reduce ash content in the coal being produced.
COVID-19 has shown the importance of technology to supplement human effort or minimize human intervention. Energy producing companies that have been slow in adopting technology will need to upgrade their infrastructure and processes, and upskill their people in the latest technologies.
COVID-19 has been extremely disruptive for human lives. But what has been positive is the humanitarian response from organizations, communities, celebrities, and ordinary citizens. Western Coalfields, a Coal India subsidiary, launched a drive to offer food packets and water bottles to migrant workers travelling in Shramik special trains. Incidentally, the bottles we distributed contained water discharged from our coal mines, which was then purified and bottled at a plant that uses reverse osmosis to purify the water. The water is branded as Coal Neer.
Efforts such as these are some of the positives that came out of the pandemic. It gives us hope for a new reality that is kinder and more compassionate.