As their decade-long effort to demonize hydraulic fracturing – or “fracking” as they like to call it – lost its previous steam over the last couple of years, anti-fossil fuel conflict groups who raise money by stoking public fears related to the oil and gas industry have gradually shifted their main focus over to the pipeline segment of the business. Encouraged by the temporary victory given them by the Obama Administration related to the Keystone XL pipeline project, these conflict groups have become engaged in protests related to numerous midstream projects in the Northeast, in North Dakota (the Dakota Access Pipeline) and in West Texas (the Trans-Pecos Pipeline).
While their high-profile “wins” to date have been either temporary or, as with the Dakota Access Pipeline, illusory, nevertheless. Thus, they have chosen to engage in a constantly-increasing number of pipeline-related construction projects and incidents.
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“May you live in interesting times,” goes the old Chinese curse. It’s a curse that we all would like to avoid in our lives, since history tells us the most interesting times we experience tend to be ones of conflict and chaos of one form or another.
Jeff Miller, the President and Chief Environment, Health and Safety Officer for Halliburton, knows better than most what it means to live through such times. Having spent the last two decades serving in a variety of leadership roles for one of the world’s largest oilfield service firms, he has experienced all manner of interesting times in an array of locations across the globe.
For Miller, who spent his younger years as a PRCA calf roper, this is not his first rodeo. But the last two years, as the price of crude oil has crashed on the world market, have been especially interesting for him, and for Halliburton.
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“There are many, many times when we sit around a table and I’m the only one in heels. And it doesn’t go unnoticed. So I always wanted to be very confident of the facts and prepared in what I was going to say, because you don’t want to be dismissed. That’s true in any meeting, in any setting; however, it was very true in my earlier years. I think that once you prove your muster, you are given equal time and equal confidence. But it is true: You do have to prove it; you do have to earn it, not unlike in anything else.”
So says Karen Harbert, President and CEO of the Institute for 21st Century Energy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. She’s discussing some of the challenges of being a woman in what has been a mostly male-dominated world of energy, a world that she has played a significant role in shaping throughout an accomplished career that began with an assignment at the Republican National Committee (RNC) upon her graduation from Rice University in 1988.
“And I think things are beginning to change in the energy industry: We certainly see more women in the C-suite,” says Harbert. “On the other hand, I don’t think we see enough women on boards. That’s probably across all business areas, but particularly in the energy industry, and I hope that does continue to change over time. But it is less about bringing people in from the rigs and up the headquarters ladder; the industry becomes more open to women as it evolves into more of a high-tech industry. So, it’s changing, and for me it meant doubling down and making sure I was well-prepared. But also, it’s about kicking the tires a little bit and letting them know us women can do this too.”
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“How does this bust differ from the bust in the ’80s?”
I get asked that question quite often, partly because I’m growing old and it shows on my face, and partly because I’ve been in the oil and gas industry since 1979, and people assume — rightly or wrongly — that I know some stuff because of that. I did live through that bust in the ’80s, and it wasn’t fun. I got laid off from a job in 1985 and was out of work for a few months — the only time I’ve been unemployed since I was 16 years old — and that caused me and my wife great financial hardship.
So I do remember those days all too well. To understand why that bust happened, you first have to go back to the oil shocks of the 1970s, when the Saudis and other OPEC nations implemented oil embargoes, first in 1973 and then again in 1979.
Two memories from that period of time stick with me to this day. The first is of filling my mother’s 1972 Pontiac Grand Ville up with gasoline on the day in 1974 when the price of gas at the local Circle K in Beeville, Texas, reached the then unheard of sum of 50 cents per gallon. That was the first time I had ever had to come up with 10 bucks (the aircraft carrier-size Grand Ville had a 26-gallon tank) to fill up a car with gas. I knew I was going to have to start working overtime or get another job if I was going to keep putting gas in that car. The second memory is of sitting at a long-disappeared Texaco station at the corner of Richmond Avenue and Buffalo Speedway in Houston during the summer of 1979, having to wait in a very long line of cars on an odd-numbered day to pay over $1 per gallon for my allotment of gas to fill up my Chevy Caprice. Another 26-gallon tank that was even more costly to fill.
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The history of the oil and natural gas industry in North America is in many ways intertwined with the history of the railroad, which in the mid-19th century became the main means of transcontinental transportation for Americans and Canadians.
As these great railroad systems were constructed across the continent, the companies building them gained ownership of great swaths of land, and, as importantly, obtained ownership of the minerals beneath the land. In the United States, as oil and natural gas began to be discovered across the Midwest and Rocky Mountain states, a good deal of it lay beneath land owned by rail companies like Burlington Northern, Union Pacific and Santa Fe.
These companies all eventually created subsidiaries to manage their oil and gas royalty holdings, and those subsidiaries eventually evolved into some of the country’s largest independent producers: Burlington Resources, Union Pacific Resources and Santa Fe Energy. Those companies are all gone today, having been merged with or acquired by ConocoPhillips, Anadarko Petroleum and Devon Energy, respectively, but their place in history is firmly established.
The growing glut of natural gas on the global market – spurred in part by increased exports of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) by U.S. producers over the last year – reminds us of the dynamic nature of the domestic natural gas market, and the role shifting public policies have played into that over the years.
My own frame of reference here begins during the summers of 1977 and 1978, when I earned college tuition money by taking summer jobs on pipeline crews in deep South Texas. In 1978, the Congress and the Carter Administration had become convinced by some really bad science that the U.S. would actually run out of natural gas in a few decades, and thus needed to conserve what little remaining reserves it had on-hand for home heating usage. Acting on this belief, then-President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Natural Gas Policy Act (NGPA) and the Fuel Use Act (FUA), both of which had major impacts on natural gas markets, and both of which inhibited investment in new natural gas-buring infrastructure.
The NGPA discouraged investment in drilling for new natural gas reserves by allowing the federal government to establish ceiling prices producers could receive for various categories of natural gas that were established under the law. The FUA was even more prohibitive on the demand side of the natural gas ledger, prohibiting utility companies from building new gas-fired power plants. The result? A Democratic Administration ironically actively encouraged the building of dozens of new coal-fired and nuclear power plants all over the United States, many of which are still operating, much to the chagrin of today’s climate alarm lobby.
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As the United States Senate finally begins taking up joint resolutions designed to reverse a handful of regulations implemented during the waning days of the Obama Administration, it’s worth discussing the indispensable role the Congressional Review Act (CRA) has come to play in halting regulatory excess, and more importantly, upholding the rule of law. While the merits of some of the regulatory actions targeted for reversal are certainly arguable, others lie so far outside the governing statutes that their reversal, either by congress or the courts, was almost inevitable from the day of their initial proposal.
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