A preview of Houston’s bid for the 2017 World Petroleum Congress

Even in a city where energy conferences are held almost every week, one event has eluded Houston’s grasp for decades. But the city is in the running to host the World Petroleum Congress in 2017.

The event is organized by the London-based World Petroleum Council, made up of 65 member countries, which describes the meeting as the Olympics of the oil and gas industry.

J. Gerardo Uria, director of general membership for the American Petroleum Institute, earlier this month identified the other contenders as Instanbul, Turkey; Copenhagen, Denmark, and Astana, Kazakhstan.

Member countries will vote during an October meeting in Calgary, Alberta, said Galen Cobb, chairman of the U.S. national committee for the World Petroleum Council.

He said Houston can offer things no other city can, including tours of the city’s energy companies and the nearby South Texas shale fields and online, real-time access for people who aren’t able to attend.

The World Petroleum Congress is held every three years, a gathering of thousands of top-level executives of international oil companies, national oil companies and service companies. Houston also bid for the 2014 meeting, losing out to Moscow by just a few votes.

Houston last hosted the event in 1987, also the last time the gathering was in the U.S.

Jorge Franz, vice president of tourism and international group sales for the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the agency decided four years ago to pursue international meetings more actively. At the direction of Mayor Annise Parker, the effort focused on the city’s key business sectors: energy, medicine and aerospace.

The Congress typically draws 5,000 to 10,000 delegates, although Franz said attendance could climb to 12,000 in Houston.

Parker helped present Houston’s bid for the 2014 event, pitting Houston against Moscow and Bogota, Colombia.

“We learned a lot,” Franz said.

The World Petroleum Council, which says its member countries produce and consume 95 percent of the world’s energy, describes its triennial meeting as the Olympics of oil and gas because of the scale of the event. But Franz said the decision-making for the host city is like the Olympics, too.

“It’s an electronic vote,” he said. “You literally sit in front of all the countries that attend the vote. You make your pitch, and they have a live vote. It’s a secret vote, but you see who gets what, and you know right away.”

Each city submitting a bid has to have the support of the chairman of the national committee, and Cobb, vice president for industry relations at Halliburton, said Houston’s bid really is a U.S. national committee bid.

The Congress met in Doha, Qatar, in 2011. Cobb said after the 2014 meeting in Moscow, there may be interest in moving it to the Western Hemisphere; that, coupled with international focus on the North American shale plays and western technology, should give Houston’s bid a boost.

“We see it every day with visits from international countries, national oil companies coming to learn about how we’re doing it in the United States,” he said. “The shale plays, they’re all over the world.
As we develop those here, it’ll definitely develop into resource plays all over the world.”

“It’ll also have huge geopolitical repercussions,” he said. “What does it mean for OPEC? What does it mean for U.S. national security? All of these are game-changers.”

But Houston has some other things going for it, too, Cobb said, including new hotel developments downtown. The city’s bid calls for the conference to be held at the George R. Brown Convention Center across from Discovery Green, an area where developers have announced several new hotel projects.

That will take traffic problems out of the equation, Cobb said, allowing Houston to offer 6,000 to 9,000 hotel rooms within walking distance of the conference.

The city’s 2014 bid drew concerns that international delegates would have problems getting visas, but Cobb said the team has been assured the issue has been addressed.

“No one can guarantee everyone in any country can get a visa, but if you meet the requirements, you should be able to come,” he said.