Deeper Water: A Report from Houston’s Offshore Technology Conference

Posted by on Jul 23, 2014
Deeper Water: A Report from Houston’s Offshore Technology Conference

The Offshore Technology Conference (OTC), an annual meeting for scientists, technologists, salespeople, job-seekers and corporate honchos in the offshore oil and natural gas extraction industry, is the largest annual conference in Houston, the fourth-largest city in the United States. This year it attracted nearly 110,000 participants from 43 countries and was housed at the appropriately-named NRG Stadium, where the Houston Texans play. I visited and talked with participants about the current energy landscape, the future, and—in the minute or two before they cut me off—the environmental and human consequences of our energy choices. When a presenter from Fugru geoconsulting told me that “the long-term trend on energy is deeper and deeper water,”  he was more correct than perhaps he’d intended.

The OTC began in 1969, a year before domestic production of petroleum in the United States peaked and began a slow decline that might ultimately be reversed by offshore oil. From its modest origins, the OTC has grown into an international behemoth behind its annual Houston conference as well as OTC Brasil, OTC Asia, and the Arctic Technology Conference. At OTC Houston 2014, over 2,000 exhibitors demonstrated their products, occupying 680,025 square feet—over twelve football fields worth of men and women in business suits, khaki pants and/or cowboy hats; massive posters; bright lights; gargantuan exhibits; bustling career centers; scores of panels; and free wine, cheese, and candy.

Talking

On the second day of the convention, the media was abuzz about the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Report on the expected human consequences of climate change. Despite claims of alarmism from certain quarters, the IPCC’s reports are consistently conservative by virtue of the body’s constitution. Each participant must sign off on the final document, and their professional tendency against speculation and fear of aggressive reprisals from conservative denialists often leads these reports to under-predict future climate change—a tendency that science historian Naomi Oreskes recently described as ESLD, “erring on the side of least drama.” Over 800 authors participated in the latest assessment, compiling over 9,000 peer-reviewed studies. Even so, the Fifth Report contained as much drama as a Hollywood blockbuster, including food scarcity, floods, droughts, a plague of locusts (ok, no locusts, although vector-borne diseases are expected to increase), mass migration, mass extinctions and the likelihood of entire regions (primarily in the Global South) becoming nearly uninhabitable.

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None of this was a topic for discussion at the OTC. An environmental regulations cohort occupied a small corner booth in the cavernous NRG Stadium convention center where I spent the bulk of my time, and they were hardly the life of the party. While forecasts of energy and environmental futures often use the phrase “business as usual” to describe a continuation of the current path of energy development, anything “as usual” was not the vision offered at the OTC. The booths, structures (some with multiple floors, winding staircases, and private chefs) and adjectives on hand promised the kind of gleaming, utopian efficiency that was the stuff of yesterday’s science fiction and today’s TED talks—better, faster, more and, of course, deeper. Indeed, “the future” was the subject of many of them. “We are focused on the future,” McDermott promised, whereas Amec was a step ahead, “Shaping the future.” Royal Bokalis Westminster proposed “Creating New Horizons Together,” horizons in which, as another put it, “All Things are Possible.”

Creating New Horizons Together

What kind of future would this be? One with “energy everywhere,” of course. But beyond that, the growing demand for cheap energy and the the technological capabilities harnessed by oil companies (and petro-states) on display might ensure that it would be a dangerous and difficult one for most human beings on this planet. Scientists estimate that it would take the combustion of approximately 565 gigatons of fossil fuels to pass 2 degrees Celsius of global warming, a level considered already calamitous by most scientists. We will surpass that number that in approximately 15 years, and there is five times more fossil fuel reserves available, much of it under the ocean. While my interlocutors were surprisingly hesitant to discuss the the future with me, not one thought that it would be anything but more fossil fuels for a very long time. They were betting on it.

Alberta Canada

This Spring, when I brought students from CENHS’s “Culture, Energy and the Environment” class to ExxonMobil’s Baytown refinery (the largest refinery in the United States), they (and I) were amazed by the the sheer scale of the physical infrastructure. There are many ways to think of our societal investment in fossil fuels, and hard infrastructure like this—refineries, roads, pipes, gas stations, etc—is one way. The corporate and scientific infrastructure on display at the OTC, less tangible but no less impressive and in some ways no more flexible, was quite a sight to behold. The technological acumen and applied scientific research—while often admittedly beyond my ability to understand or fully appreciate—was simply breathtaking. I recommend attending the conference for this fact alone. These are brilliant people collectively capable of incredible technological marvels, but the primary (if not only) opportunity they find for the expression of their gifts is in our relentless, Faustian pursuit—deeper and deeper—of fossil fuels.  There’s at least a hint of tragedy there.

GE Careers

Although a glorious, energetic future was at our fingertips and any physical obstacles to oil and gas extraction were discussed in the most minute detail with the friendly folks manning the various stations, the environmental changes (and then social and economic changes) that will surely alter the future context of energy production—carbon accumulation, rising seas, drought, extreme weather events, etc—were not considered an appropriate subject for discussion. When I casually mentioned the word “environment” to the representative of a manufacturer of industrial gas turbines (named, ironically, Solar) the conversation was ended mid-sentence: “Let’s just stop, I think we’re done,” he informed me, and walked away. Others acknowledged the relevance of environmental questions to future energy productions but insisted that such issues were simply beyond their company’s purview or above their pay grade. A friendly PR person from McDermott said that the company was “at the bottom of the food chain” of extraction and therefore had no ability to even entertain such questions. A PR minder for Halliburton, meanwhile, prevented the service manager I was interviewing from answering any questions about ‘the environment’ or ‘climate change’—these phrases were placed in smart quotes for reasons that were beyond me.  “For that you’d have to talk to someone who’s in more of a strategic position,” she said.

Denial comes in many forms. American liberals mock the conservative denial of climate science while readily engaging in ‘implicatory denial,’ which admits the basic facts but denies the cascade of personal and political implications that should follow from them. Social psychologists such as Susan Opotow and Leah Weiss have identified a different flavor, labeling the assignation of responsibility to “higher authorities or legitimate decision makers” as itself a form of denial.  Had I the access to interview a CEO of any one of these corporations, there is no doubt that they, for their part, would pass any responsibility on to their shareholders, or legislators, or consumers, or perhaps ‘the market.’  Noone is responsible, the future is set in stone, and questioning (let alone resistance) is futile.  The world keeps turning, on an axis of ancient sunlight.

A Deep Relationship

In her recent book Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century, Stephanie LeMenager described our attachment to petroleum as “ultradeep.” The forms of extraction advertised at the OTC were indeed ultradeep, going far deeper into the earth than observers had thought possible even a decade ago.  But, as LeMenager put it, “going ultradeep implies an unprecedented potential for destruction because of where these last reserves are and the violence of the experiments necessary to get them.  Ultradeep implies a disregard for climate security and for the world’s oceans, fundamentals of ecological health.  Ultradeep also implies an unprecedented devotion, even love” for the benefits of fossil fuels: modernity, with all of its entertainments, comforts, and conveniences.  We are indeed in deep water, and, if the OTC is any indication, are only heading deeper.