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Energy CEOs attuned to rewards, weaknesses as they embrace tech, survey finds

A worldwide survey of CEOs indicated that company heads in the energy sector are bullish on near-term growth while anticipating both positives and negatives from their industry's new technologies.

The subset of energy CEOs in KPMG's 1,300-executive survey showed a strong sense of optimism, with 85% of respondents describing themselves as "very confident" in overall sector growth and 88% predicting their own companies will grow in the next three years. The majority also indicated that they were working to modernize their operations, with 85% saying they had either implemented or were working to implement artificial intelligence in their operations.

The rapid adaptation of new technologies is contrary to the popular perception of the oil and gas industry being slow to respond to change, but the 2014-2016 oil and gas price collapse changed the approach of many companies, said Regina Mayor, KPMG's global sector head and U.S. national sector leader for energy and natural resources. "The downturn created enough of a crisis that it was the mother of invention," Mayor said. "All of the previous blueprints got thrown out the window, and many companies started again, including adopting new technologies."

"The impacts are across the entire value chain: front, middle and back office," Mayor said. "New technology includes things that are right at the wellhead, improving drilling and well performance, improving targeting, improving rig management and crew management. It can also improve IT controls, accounting transactions. … It's all of the above, and that's what's super-exciting."

While energy CEOs are optimistic about how technology can improve their bottom line, they are also concerned about potential problems. About two-thirds of CEOs interviewed said they believe that it is not a matter of "if" but "when" their companies are subject to a cyberattack. Only 53% of energy CEOs said their industry is "well prepared" to deal with such an attack.

Even though the increased use of technology is usually linked with job losses, 93% of energy CEOs interviewed said they expect headcount to increase industrywide over the next several years, with 58% saying they believe that the greater use of robotics will also lead to increased hiring.

The overall sense of optimism in the KPMG survey extended to the prospect of M&A activity. More than four-fifths of energy executives polled said they expect a moderate to high level of M&A movement in the next three years as companies look to expand market share and improve efficiencies.

While the overwhelming number of executives seem confident in the near future, Mayor cautioned that many are also concerned about the prospect of global political issues raining on their parade.

"There's still so much risk and uncertainty that it's creating anxiety," Mayor said. "You see concerns about trade disputes, tariffs, the geopolitics … all of these very large, very macro impacts are having a dampening effect on what should be exuberance in the industry. Trying to navigate through those dilemmas is a major challenge for our executives."