Fueling the Future: An Interview with Rikki Hrenko-Browning

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This is the third of a series of conversations with Utah women building disruptive technologies. I’m Kimberly Zhang. I set out to speak to the women behind the business, research and ideas that are changing the world. They share their work, thoughts and advice. Please note that the opinions expressed by interviewees do not necessarily represent those of GOED, but they do promise to be interesting.

I caught up with Rikki Hrenko-Browning, CEO of Enefit American Oil. We discussed the difference between shale oil and oil shale, as well as sustainability and family policy.

What brought you to Utah and what convinced you to stay?

I’m originally from Ohio. During grad school, I wanted to get some international experience so I did an internship in Estonia. I fell in love with the country and saw a lot of interesting opportunities for what I wanted to do. I ended up moving to Estonia to work for our parent company, Enefit, for about seven years before I came to Utah.

My job brought me back to the States and Utah specifically. For the company, I’ve done various things. I started out in our environmental department and moved into our development department. We started looking around the world to acquire additional resources and the U.S. quickly became a target market for us. Utah was the top of our list for a number of reasons and when we acquired the property here, I moved back permanently.

What inspired you to major in environment science and policy, and what inspired you to make the jump from environment to energy?

I’ve always been in tune with sustainability and the environment, but I was also interested in large infrastructure projects. Energy development was an obvious opportunity with my educational background in environmental policy. Going into a country that recently transitioned from Soviet-era environmental policy to European Union policy, which is a very different world, and working for the largest industry in the country were great opportunities.

When we talk about shale, one thing to be clear about is that Enefit and the type of oil shale we develop is not fracking.  We actually mine a mineral and process oil out of it. It’s a very different industry. That being said, every leader has something that keeps them up at night. Making sure that we’re developing this project in the most environmentally sound way is the thing that keeps me up at night.

Tell me about your production process.

Every energy project has an environmental impact. Every energy development process has its pros and cons. Mined oil shale is a sedimentary rock that contains a component called kerogen, which is basically an immature oil. We mine that material through conventional surface mining and pillar underground mining. We use a heating process called pyrolysis, heating in the absence of oxygen. You heat it up, producing gases or vapors, and then you can condense down those vapors and treat them the same way you see condensation units at refineries.

The oil processed is a very high-quality pipeline-able product. The process, once it’s up and running, is energy self-sustaining. It doesn’t require an input of additional energy, because the heat coming from the process continues to drive the reactions. We are really efficient with waste-heat capture and will use the produced gases to produce excess power, which will go back to the grid. We won’t import any energy once the process is up and running, and we will cover all of the facility’s needs and put energy back on the grid as a byproduct.

What would you say to the critics of Enefit, who believe that this process is not environmentally friendly?

There are different interest groups that have different opinions, biases and agendas. Certainly there are a number of groups out there that do not want to see any kind of fossil fuel or any other natural resource development. Those groups are never going to support our project no matter what data I provide them about our Estonian operations or how our project is being developed in Utah.

That being said, Enefit is in a unique position to capitalize on the decades of experience and operational data from our Estonian operations. Estonia this year is celebrating 100 years of producing energy from oil shale. The country has been utilizing oil shale for energy production and mining it commercially for 100 years, which is quite a landmark achievement. Our company has been commercially producing oil from oil shale for more than three decades. We have a unique set of operational experiences that are applied in developing our Utah project.

Comments that have come out in various groups’ op-eds have been confusing the issue of other companies’ experiences operating in Estonia – not Enefit’s – as well as other technologies and their environmental impacts, then looking at 100 years of legacy impacts, and thinking that’s going to apply to what gets developed in Utah today. That’s simply not true. Estonia today is part of the European Union and not the Soviet Union, which occupied Estonia until 1991, so we operate under very different environmental regulations today than in the past. We’re proud of and rely on our proven track record of environmental performance to counteract our critics.

How do you see oil shale changing the scope of energy in the future?Rikki Hrenko-Brown

Looking into the crystal ball in energy is scary. It’s even scarier to think about what the industry is going to look like in the next three months. Oil shale is a massive resource. There’s an estimated four trillion barrels of oil in this tri-state area with, about a third of it located in Utah. That’s multiple times the amount of conventional crude in Saudi Arabia.

The resource potential is immense. One of the big differences between oil shale production and fracking is the very stable production level. The project we are developing is looking at producing 50,000 barrels a day consistently over a 30-year lifetime. There’s no production risk. With fracking, unfortunately what you see is a very sharp production decline in the wells, which makes projecting the life and economics of the well over a 30-year timeline very challenging.

What is one stereotype about women in STEM you would love to smash right now?

The biggest one would be that women aren’t as analytical as men. That’s extremely frustrating. There are so many biases surrounding the fact women aren’t “good” at math or science or engineering. It’s simply not true.

How have things for women in the industry changed since you started your career? How is it internationally in Estonia?

I think a lot of issues faced by women in STEM, and women in leadership positions in energy, are driven by the deeply ingrained social biases that start from the earliest of ages.  Those issues are prevalent not just in Utah or the U.S., but globally. There are unique attributes that are different in every culture. Some cultures in Sweden and Denmark are much more advanced in gender equality, but it’s a truly global problem.

Looking around the energy industry, there’s probably been an improvement in the employment pipeline for young women.But I have to say that I haven’t seen significant improvements in upper level management and that’s not surprising. The pipeline is smaller, there are fewer women going into STEM and women are also dropping out at a higher rate than men are.

What do you think can be done on a state or national level to help women into the pipeline and break into that upper management level?

Certainly the state has a role to play, but that being said, women and men have more of a role to play. We should support each other in the workplace.

The state should be more involved in getting more women in the pipeline at the earliest potential ages. It needs to be an active push to change any ingrained biases and encourage young girls to get into science and engineering and make it more accessible.

One thing that has become relevant to me recently is the maternity leave structure for supporting both parents’ leave. The US is the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t have a required leave policy. In Estonia, mothers have 20 weeks off with full salary capped at a certain level plus other incentives. That’s challenging from the employer point of view, but on the other hand there has to be some balance.

Utah has very specific trends that make support from the state more important. Utah has larger families and higher birth rates. There is a higher proportion of women out of the workforce with younger children. There is a higher proportion of women that drop out university programs whereas nationally you see more women graduate with advanced degrees than men. These are trends that Utah needs to be aware of and should be implementing policies around to try and counteract.  That directly supports STEM and it supports women in professional development.

What advice would you give to a young person?

First, sit at the table. I had a great mentor when I was in Estonia who taught me this. Quite literally, if you walk into that conference room and have been invited in sit at the table, don’t take a seat on a chair against the wall, but actually show up and be physically and mentally prepared to engage. Now, that assumes that you are prepared and you something useful to add to the conversation, but that being said, if you don’t show up ready to contribute you will probably not be asked back again. You only have so many first chances. Particularly as a woman, it’s even more important. Sit at the table.

Second, ask. I had a great professor in grad school at Carnegie Mellon who taught a negotiations class and wrote a book called “Women Don’t Ask.” The research shows that women don’t start out negotiating their first salary. By not negotiating starting salaries, this snowballs into lifetime earnings where we see very clearly that women make less than men.