Offshore energy producers that challenge the ocean’s depths also navigate the sometimes treacherous waters of federal regulations as they seek approval to work in a business where losing a day’s operation can cost a million dollars.
Figuring out such complex rules often is the province of high-powered attorneys from pedigreed law schools, yet scores of offshore operators trust their compliance to Jodie Connor, a Fort Worth native with a high-school education.
“Jodie is legendary in my mind,” said Frank Paskewich, a Coast Guard veteran who was captain of the port in New Orleans and now is executive director of the spill oil response cooperative Clean Gulf Associates. “Everyone knows her. She has single-handedly done more for the exploration and production industry than anyone I have come across in the last 20 years. She is very, very knowledgeable and very up-to-date on keeping track of the pending and existing regulations, interpreting them and getting the industry to comply with the regulations.”
That knowledge also draws admiration from captains of industry.
“She has a pulse on everything and anything working with the government — it gives you great confidence,” said Tom Young, vice president of business development for Deep Gulf Energy. “All our operations are on federal lands and you have to have a firm understanding and great relation with the agencies; they can make or break you. She keeps up with the rules and has the relationships to get beyond the black and white to understand what makes regulators tick.”
The evolution of J. Connor Consulting Inc. began in the 1970s, when Jodie Connor took a job handling regulatory paperwork for Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens’ Mesa Petroleum. She later joined Houston Oil and Mineral.
A confluence of events — Tenneco’s purchase of Houston Oil and Mineral in 1981 and the birth of her daughter — led Connor to leave the company for what she thought was going to be life as a stay-at-home mother.
Instead, industry contacts started calling and asking for advice on regulations. Connor helped out informally, dispensing information for free. But as the calls kept multiplying, she realized she had a business and began running it out of her kitchen.
Yet it was the collapse of oil prices in the mid-1980s, and a backlog of unused offshore leases, that unexpectedly presented an opportunity for that business to grow.
“Geologists were being laid off from the majors and there were a lot of leases that were about to expire,” Connor said. “The geologists found financing — all of a sudden there were all of these independent operators in the Gulf of Mexico farming in leases and that is what gave us our start.”
Connor helped them develop their drilling plans and permit applications, and set the bar for other offshore experts, including her own children.
“She learned how to write the technical material for plans by staying up every night writing and re-writing,” said Trey Phillips, Connor’s oldest son and director of response training and exercises for her company. “She developed her own way of doing it. She certainly didn’t take a class. It was like everything else she does — through sheer perseverance and outworking 98 percent of the rest of the population.”
Offshore drilling permits are cumbersome, typically more than 1,000 pages long, with a staggering level of detail, and Connor developed a reputation for making sense of them and helping operators avoid regulatory delays.
The task became even more complicated after the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill spurred new rules and a temporary moratorium on some drilling.
“The guidance we were getting about going back to work was at best vague,” said Ross Frazer, vice president of engineering for Houston-based ATP Oil & Gas. “Jodie is the first person I recall who figured out what they were going to be looking for, that the industry had to demonstrate that they could contain a subsea blowout. That was the first time I heard it distilled in a way that I could digest and understand.”
Connor acquired her insights on the job, through study of the regulations and countless hours of conversation with regulators and others in the industry.
“Financially, college wasn’t an option,” said her sister, Cathy Brock, who is now the senior vice president of J. Connor Consulting. “She didn’t grow up in a neighborhood where many kids had the opportunity to go. Had she gone to college, she probably would never have gotten into this business because the work she does isn’t something taught at a university.”
Her skills have kept clients coming back.
“It’s deep thought,” said Rusty Walter, CEO of Walter Oil & Gas, whose father ran Houston Oil and Mineral — the company where Connor worked before she formed her own business. “I have been in situations where she has that ability to consider the unintended consequences of a proposal, how it might impact all the different people in the room. She understands the peripheral effects because her knowledge base is so broad in so many areas.”
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This talent for group dynamics may have its roots in social skills Connor developed at age 3, when her mother, a recent divorcee struggling to make ends meet as a taxi driver, placed the toddler and her older sister into an institutional home for children.
For five years, the girls’ mother, Claire Henson, paid $7 a week to the home for taking care of her girls, and was allowed to visit on Sundays — which she did faithfully.
Cathy Brock, the older sister, fills in details: “My mother was trying to get to California from New York and she ran out of money in Texas and met my dad. He was a jitterbug champion and a fry cook.”
When he joined the Navy, his wife and daughters moved in with his parents, who supported themselves with a highway fruit stand and lived in a cinder block Fort Worth house without indoor plumbing.
Later, when Henson and the girls’ father divorced, she couldn’t support them on her meager pay as a taxi driver. Afraid of losing custody to the grandparents, Henson moved the girls into the group home while she lived in a rented room.
“Jodie was the youngest child they had ever accepted into the home,” said Brock. “She was this little blond girl with blue eyes, and she was so cute and sweet. Children want attention and I think she learned how to get attention by being friendly. I think it helped her develop her personality and her social skills. She always had friends.”
The experience bonded the two sisters and was the foundation for their work ethic.
“What I make about that life is that the lack of control you would feel by being lined up, being told to eat at this time, molded and shaped Cathy and Jodie both, and they responded by working very hard to have control over their own destinies,” said Phillips.
For Connor, now 62, that destiny led to her to a reputation among operators and regulators as a key voice in bridging the gap between how a new regulation is written and its practical meaning for the industry.
“When Congress creates laws, the individual agency has to publish regulations on top of that,” said Paskewich, the former Coast Guard captain. “Those regulations are very specific and difficult to interpret – they need to have a little more explanation to them as to what the government was looking for. The government understands that when Jodie comes through the door, she is looking out to do the best she can to understand what the regulators require and what the industry needs to do to meet those requirements.”
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J. Connor Consulting — now comprising more than 80 employees in 40,000 square feet of office space — is one of the leading regulatory consulting firms in Houston, preparing permitting applications and safety and spill response plans for more than 100 operators in the Gulf.
“She is a professional’s professional,” said Jim O’Brien, founder of Witt O’Brien, one of the largest oil spill management companies in North America, estimating that 90 percent of the independent exploration and production companies working in the Gulf use safety plans developed by Connor’s firm.
“The regulatory community and the industry know that she is not going to shortchange anything; she is going to make sure that the last ‘t’ is crossed and ‘i’ is dotted,.” he said.
Connor credits her success in life to wisdom she learned from her mother, who reunited the family under one roof when Connor was 9.
Phillips, Connor’s son, said she never expressed resentment for the years in the group home. “She always thought her mom loved her and was doing the best she could,” Phillips said — adding that the experience also shows up in his mother’s graciousness toward others facing hard times.
Especially notable among the wisdom Claire Henson imparted was something she wrote in a school autograph book for Jodie shortly after the girls moved back in: “Love everyone around you, work hard, play hard, be serious, but always reminder to see the funny side of life!”
Connor has made this the motto for her family and her company.
She has had plenty of opportunities to find humor in difficult circumstances, including an evacuation on the second day of her first offshore visit in 1977.
“I get ill on a backyard swing and had never been in a helicopter,” she said.
But when a well control emergency forced her and 53 others to evacuate the rig, she spent eight hours in an escape capsule as it rolled in 10-foot seas.
“I was like, ‘what am I doing here?’?” she recalls.
“‘And where’s my purse?’”
But for those who have watched her evolution from secretary to one of the leading minds in offshore, Connor’s determination and confidence is what enabled her to blaze her path.
“You don’t go to school for this kind of job and what she has created,” Paskewich said. “People seek her out for her counsel. She found a niche and saw the need and took the bull by the horns.”