Over the past several weeks, U.S. consumers have rejoiced as plummeting oil prices have resulted in gasoline costing less than $2 a gallon in many areas. Lower prices are just one of the many factors predicted to affect the energy sector in the coming year—increased regulation, the potential lifting of the crude oil export ban, and “The Great Crew Change” will also send ripples throughout the oil and gas industry.

Here are seven factors that will likely influence the energy sector in 2015.

Falling prices

While lower oil prices are a cause for celebration among consumers and companies that use energy to manufacture their products, they are not good news for the energy companies themselves, who have already seen their stock prices drop. Currently, analysts predict energy prices to remain low well into 2015, which could further damage the stocks as well as prompt layoffs.

The effects of low oil prices are not limited to the energy sector, however. According to S&P analyst Jim Corridore, companies that do business with energy companies, such as construction and engineering firms, will also be adversely affected.

Potential oil exports

The export of U.S. crude oil has been banned since 1975, when the Energy Policy and Conservation Act was passed. Now, with oil prices so low, many predict that the oil industry will finally succeed in getting the ban lifted.

Texas Representative Joe Barton has sponsored legislation to lift the ban, suggesting that the move will both benefit consumers and save jobs. Barton has also commented that “falling prices at the pump make it easier to do things on oil policy here in Washington.”

Increased regulation

The energy sector saw more regulation in 2014, a pattern that is expected to continue. Deloitte analysts have identified six major regulatory trends that will likely affect energy companies in 2015:

  • Continuing aggressive regulatory enforcement. The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) has been taking a heavy-handed approach to regulatory enforcement, especially as regards to energy trading and market manipulation. This enforcement activity will likely become even more aggressive in 2015.
  • Continuing uncertainty about the regulatory environment. As Deloitte reports, major regulatory agencies including the CFTC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) have recently experienced significant changes in leadership. As the balance of power in government shifts, there is likely to be continued uncertainty about the direction of future regulation.
  • Increased scrutiny of hedging practices. Both the CFTC and the FERC are focusing more on energy trading practices, particularly cross-market hedging. Deloitte notes that “many energy companies are still trying to understand what regulators consider illegal and inappropriate behavior” and that the companies can benefit by closely monitoring their transactions to identify those that might be risky enough to “create problems with regulators.”
  • More focus on cybersecurity. In 2015, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) is expected to focus on cybersecurity. According to Booz Allen, “Experts agree: the energy sector is the greatest target for cyber threats. No energy company wants to be the first ‘Cyber Macondo’ or ‘Cyber Blackout.’”
  • Trade surveillance becoming non-optional. With increasing regulatory scrutiny, energy companies need to keep a sharp eye on their own trading practices so that they find and report problems before the regulators do.
  • Higher record-keeping standards. Energy companies will need to better manage their data to demonstrate compliance. Deloitte says: “Maintaining complete and accurate records is only the beginning. The next step is reconciling the records with those of counter-parties.”

More widely distributed energy resources

Traditional energy companies are facing increased competition from alternative energy resources. For an article for The Energy Collective, Jason Brown surveyed several cleantech industry leaders, many of whom expect that 2015 will see energy being more distributed across different sources, for example, solar power on more residential and commercial buildings and more electric cars.

More influential customers

Customers playing a bigger role in the energy industry as they start to have more choices of utility companies. In this environment, Booz Allen says, energy companies will need to “spend more time understanding their market ecosystem of customers, investors, communities, and competition….Organizations that fully embrace using integrated techniques to provide 360-degree awareness will have more insight into their reputation and be better equipped to respond to events to proactively manage risk across the enterprise.”

Technology and big data

Big data has transformed nearly every industry over the past year or so, as companies are now able to measure practically everything. But measurement is only half of the battle—smart meters and other technologies are providing energy companies with more data than they know what to do with.

A recent Accenture survey of energy industry leaders found that only 20% “believe their companies take an integrated, organization-wide approach to analytics.” In 2015 the focus will be on overcoming barriers, such as poor data quality and analytics, to transform the data companies collect into actionable insights.

Skills gap due to shifting demographics

Just as many industries have benefited from advances in technology and better data collection, so too have they started to feel the crunch of what is often referred to as the “skills gap.” This gap—between the skills employers want and the skills employees have—is being driven in part by a demographic shift in which the workforce is getting older and not enough younger skilled workers are available to take the place of those who retire.

The American Petroleum Institute estimates that this “Great Crew Change,” could result in as many as 50% of skilled energy workers retiring in the next five to seven years. Innovative energy companies are dealing with this projected shortage in several ways, such as by recruiting at high schools and colleges, funding training programs, and providing incentives to retain their skilled workers.

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