IHS CERAweek draws energy luminaries to Houston summit

Note: FuelFix will provide extensive weeklong coverage from inside the IHS CERAWeek energy conference. Check back for the latest news and perspectives from energy leaders at the event beginning Monday afternoon.

HOUSTON — Tempered growth in major emerging economies will loom over a massive energy symposium this week when industry power brokers assemble in Houston to analyze rising competition and geopolitical threats to global markets.

A nod to booming U.S. energy production could counterbalance anxieties over economic challenges in Russia, India and Brazil and the aftermath of the Arab Spring in the Middle East, but this year’s annual IHS CERAWeek probably will  be marked by forecasts of sinking oil prices.

“The stability of oil prices obscures the actual uncertainty that lies beneath the price,” said IHS Chairman and Pulitzer-prize winning author Daniel Yergin. He spoke with FuelFix about market forces that will shape dialogues at the weeklong energy summit, which begins Monday at the Hilton Americas-Houston downtown.

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Yergin also said the event might draw attention to the size and velocity of the U.S. oil and gas boom from Texas to North Dakota and Pennsylvania, which he said many people across the nation haven’t grasped fully.

Sanctions on Iranian oil exports would not have worked without the new stockpiles, and the nation’s supply of natural gas has improved its economic position in the world dramatically.

“I don’t think the nation’s thinking has caught up with the oil patch and how big it is,” Yergin said.

Big names, big issues

A slew of C-suite energy executives from the likes of Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhillips are slated to speak to more than 2,500 participants at the conference, which was launched in 1982 by the Cambridge Energy Research Associates, now part of IHS.

They will be joined by a cast of academics, foreign oil ministers, industry regulators including Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, Senate energy heavyweight Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, whose time steering the most powerful central bank in the world ended in January.

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The conference, Yergin said, will serve as a platform for industry leaders to brainstorm about a wide range of issues, including Mexico’s energy reform efforts, the growing use of crude-carrying rail cars in North America, rising construction costs for oil and gas production projects, China’s role in energy demand and its credit issues, and an increasingly competitive international landscape.

The registration fee for the conference is $7,500 for a weeklong executive pass. Jeff Marn, a spokesman for IHS, said the group — formerly called Information Handling Services — does not disclose the event’s costs or how many companies will be represented.

Murkowski, top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, will kick off the event with a keynote address Monday and probably will reiterate her support for lifting a 40-year-old ban on U.S. crude exports, Yergin said.

Global energy topics

On Tuesday, oil executives and analysts will take the stage to discuss the effects of the shale boom in the United States and economic troubles abroad.

“These countries that looked so promising a few years ago — Russia, Brazil and India — are all seeing challenges to economic growth,” Yergin said.

Wednesday’s conference focus will be on another fossil fuel, natural gas. Panels will discuss how big players like Germany are feeling the pressure of increased international competition, especially as the U.S. builds its position in global markets.

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Thursday’s gathering of electric power stakeholders will talk about the clash between coal and natural gas generation in North America, and about changes that may come to Texas’ competitive power market as it strives to meet demands of the state’s growing population.

Bernanke, Yergin said, will cap the week on Friday with a talk likely to include his thoughts on how the U.S. oil and gas production boom fits into the nation’s recovery from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Also on that last conference day, Yergin said, “we’re going to have a big look at geopolitics over the next 30 years.”

Energy innovations

The gathering is also a chance for energy executives to rub elbows and for inventors to show off their new gizmos.

“I think it’s an opportunity to tell the industry where we think the opportunities are, going forward,” said Robert Armstrong, a chemical engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He will lead a group of faculty members from the MIT Energy Initiative in a talk about various advances coming out of their laboratories.

He said MIT mechanical engineer Alex Slocum has developed a new drill head design that’s better at digging into shale plays than standard rotary directional drill bits. After five years of refining metal blades and various field tests, oil field services giant Schlumberger is bringing the drill heads to a broader market, Armstrong said.

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This year’s IHS CERAWeek will be a first for Anouar Jamoussi, president and CEO of itRobotics, a small Houston-area company that has developed software products to inspect coiled tubing used in extracting shale oil and gas.

For 14 years after he left BMC Software to start itRobotics, Jamoussi never had been swept up in the energy conference until his company was chosen to promote its business alongside other inventors.

“The idea is to get on the radar screen,” he said. Not every dealmaker filing in and out of the Hilton Americas-Houston this week will stop to look at itRobotics, but sooner or later, Jamoussi said, many energy companies will feel the effects of his technology, which tests the quality and safety of tubing used in directional drilling at major U.S. shale plays.

“With BMC I was purely a software guy,” he said, but he noted that many of BMC’s clients were Fortune 500 oil and gas companies. Eventually, that industry would sweep him up, too. “This is my second life,” he said.


IHS CERAWeek

Cambridge Energy Research Associates started the annual CERAWeek conference in 1982 and the event continued after CERA was acquired in 2004 by IHS, formerly called Information Handling Services. Planners expect more than 2,500 attendees at the conference, which includes speeches and panels on technical, financial and policy issues.

Here are some of the keynote speakers during the week-long event at the Hilton Americas-Houston downtown:

Monday

  • U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, top Republican on the Senate Energy Committee.

Tuesday

  • John Watson, CEO of Chevron Corp.

Wednesday

  • Ernest Moniz, U.S. energy secretary

Thursday

  • Gina McCarthy, administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Friday

  • Ben Bernanke, Federal Reserve chairman 2006-January 2014