Breaking Ice

An Immersion Education of the Oil and Gas Industry
by Megan Hayes -- October 17th, 2014

This year, instead of heading to east to the coast, or west to the Blue Ridge highway for my fall break, I flew to Houston to participate in the hydrocarbons field trip led by Professor Lincoln Pratson. Instead of being surrounded by wilderness, I was deep within the concrete jungle and engineering marvel that is the oil and natural gas industry.

Since the early days of identifying as an “environmentalist” it was clear that to be one, there were several unwritten rules to follow, of which one is that “Big Oil is Bad”, additionally that all those working within these companies are equally bad, and are presumed to care little about the natural world. So in deciding to participate in this field trip with the ingrained indoctrination of the environmentalist, it was assumed that I had decided to walk into the belly of the beast, to decipher its ways, and to learn best to defeat it.

Except, I wasn’t on the trip to fulfill a vendetta or find a crippling weakness, I had decided to take the trip based on a weakness in my teachings. I had no previous understanding of the energy needs, processes, and challenges that face the developed and developing world. I felt that if I were to truly be critical of the industry, I would need to be educated in its functions and operations.

Without a basis of understanding I knew that I would not have credible convictions or beliefs. Without a balanced and educated opinion, I would not be granted admission to opportunities to bring about positive change in the world.

Here’s a summary of the 6 day immersion trip into the oil and natural gas industry.

Day 1: Private tour of a gas refinery with Uncle Wally and trouble shooting of downed machinery.

I flew in a day early and was greeted at the Houston Airport by my Uncle Wally who was holding a hard hat and a pair of steel toe boots; I was invited to partake in a private tour of the refinery that my Uncle Wally worked at. While my Uncle only planned to give me a few hours walking tour of his plant, being the most senior operations manager he was called to action when one of the refining plants was inoperable. Losing approximately $1.35 per minute in profit, the engineers were in a frenzy to get it back up and operating! Standing next to piping with over 1900 btu’s of pressure or under massive cylinders heated over 900 degrees Fahrenheit, and then coming across pipes that had water condensing on their outside and solidifying into icy structures was absolutely mind-blowing and actually pretty terrifying. While it had only been a few short hours since I was on campus at Duke University, I was completely out of my element.IMG_1458

Day 2: Met up with the class for a tour of Weiss Energy Hall at the Houston Museum of Natural History.

Walking the exhibit with a docent and active employee of Hess we learned the history of the oil and natural gas industry, how formations are created and found, and how they are reached using an evolving array of drilling bits and long steel piping. We discussed how porosity, permeability, and oil types all greatly determined the machinery types used throughout the exploration, extraction and refining processes. I was eager to discuss the processes that became disastrous in the Deepwater Horizon event. I had long read of the mud and cement casing failures, but until this tour I had no real understanding of the precise pressures and actions needed to be controlled to ensure proper development of a well. Seeing the machinery and being able to ask questions of the docent truly made my understandings much stronger. Luckily for us, when the docent wasn’t able to answer specific questions on the refining and distilling practices, my uncle who was tagging along on the tour and was able to jump right in and give a mini-lecture on the processes. IMG_20141010_184106011_HDR

Day 3: Tour of an independent oil company and oil producing site.

With the backdrop of an operating Donkey Jack and the constant sound of a neighbor out dove hunting, the co-owner of HM Oil lectured us on his operations and the challenges that he faced with being a small timer. His challenges ranged from gaining access to his subsurface minerals with a resentful surface land owner, the challenges of water management, and machinery upkeep. We discussed how regulations made by the EPA could have drastic effects on his business and how easily affected his income is by fluctuating oil prices well beyond his scope of control. While some of my classmates were unknowingly attacked by mountains of red stinging ants, I was mesmerized by the rhythmic pumping of the jack and the backdrop of Texan wilderness. A business in the business of making money, and not much else, that is what our lecturer described his company as, and was quite proud of all that they has achieved despite never advancing beyond a small-time operation.

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We then returned to the hotel where we listened to lectures on the development of carbon sequestration and capture projects, an alum’s work on developing and new technologies referred to as fracking, the geopolitical issues associated with the grossly fluctuating energy industry, and finally another Duke alum’s presentation on venture capitalism and his prospects and beliefs for the future of the industry. The presentations were at a quick pace and the topics were industry-wide in scope. As the Nic Students’ understandings broadened, we became more eager to challenge our presenters with questions. We ended the day with an alumni reception supported by the Alumni Engagement office at the Nicholas School, and a dinner at a steak house. Our alumni were eager to learn of our work and to offer their support in our professional development. It was absolutely great to hear how our interests were of value and importance for current and future developments in and within the many industry types our alumni were representative of.

Day 4: Ocean Star Museum tour led by Professor Lincoln Pratson and tour of Houston shipping channel.

With my background in oceanography, and my interests in offshore development and spill response, this day’s events were highly anticipated. Lincoln had a very direct path he wanted to walk us on for the museum tour and very specific things he wished for us to notice and pay attention to. As we walked through the exhibits and boat miniatures, the scale of the operations started to take shape in my mind, and it was beyond impressive. While Lincoln had mentioned that we would be visiting sites that increased in magnitude, he didn’t say that the sizes would expand on a logarithmic scale! What we had viewed just the day before on the independent site was nothing in comparison to the operations required to drill and produce out in the marine environments. I highly, highly, recommend the museum to anyone who has any slight curiosity about the offshore industry. Upon returning to the hotel, we had a final presentation on unconventional oil and extraction processes required of new developments. As I scribbled as quickly as possible to take notes on the presentation, I couldn’t help but be in shock as I was overloaded with information on the massive scale of these operations.

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Day 5: Visit to the ExxonMobil Research center and tour of Baytown Refinery.

Going into this day, I didn’t really know what to expect, but what I got from it was among the highlights of the trip. The first presentation was a bit of a show and tell of the advanced technologies and 3D imaging projects that the ExxonMobil team employs to develop in new regions and to design new machinery. With this 3D imaging they’re able to fully construct and inspect the projects that are proposed prior to implementation and development. Donning special 3D glasses the class stepped up to the screen to play in their 3D world. Here’s one of the engineers wearing the special cameras that directed the field of vision. When I was given the opportunity to try them on I was able to walk along the platform and the image would shift given the direction I looked.

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Next presentation was less fun and games, but more applicable to the Nic School students in the audience. This presentation was given by one of the heads of the environmental, socioeconomic, and health departments who himself was an environmental scientist by training, and his presentation was on the ways in which ExxonMobil understands and manages the many risks associated with their operations. I was not expecting to hear this high-level scientist speak on their programs to mitigate impacts caused by malaria, human rights, and wetlands. While I’ve extensively studied the importance of stakeholder engagement to hear the presenter lecture on the high level of importance that they rank stakeholder engagement was eye-opening in a positive way. To have ExxonMobil answer my questions and present these issues as equally concerning as I had considered them, I was quite a bit impressed. To follow this, the head of the Arctic and Ocean Sciences Division gave a presentation that hit home for me even more than I could’ve possibly imagined. Even after critiquing the presentation and offering discussion questions, try as I might to poke holes in the assumptions, I found them to be pretty robust. Directly following a lunchtime break we jumped back into our trust van and were off to the ExxonMobil Baytown Refinery, the second largest refinery in the United States. While we weren’t able to take photos of the refinery while on our tour, I did manage to snag a photo while in flight leaving Houston! At over 3,200 acres, the plant is beyond massive. Our tour guides lectured us on the importance that Baytown Refinery has played in the simple developments of technologies such as a UV-protectant plastic ketchup bottle, to the much-needed rubber during WWII when our access to rubber trees was limited due to the war. A structure of “engineering artwork” as several of the Nic Schoolers commented, the plant was massive in scale and with a rapid flow of information being presented we were greatly outmatched and overwhelmed. After the third or fourth question about water treatment, wetland mitigation, and flare-offs the lecturer finally caught on that we were from an environmental school.

Day 6: Meeting with EDF training, flight home.

The morning meeting with EDF trading was our final presentation for the trip.  This final meeting continued with the trend of increasing magnitude and sophistication. Though the presentation was only a few short hours, the information that they presented on was littered with acronyms and references that left my head spinning in an attempt to catch up.

Reflections

I am incredibly thankful of the opportunity that was granted to us students in gaining access to the phenomenal speakers and locations. Given many of the speakers had participated in this trip for the last ten years that Lincoln has led it, it is readily apparent that they gained as much if not more from interacting with us students than we did from interacting with them. The challenge that energy providers and we environmentalists face are very similar, and through cooperation and active engagement we might be in a better place than if we were to attempt these battles on our own or if we were to continue forward in an oppositional way. The sobering situation is that with the current growth of developed and developing nations and an earthly population that is continually growing our energy needs are estimated to increase by 30 percent within the next 20 years. While it is of great concern to to preserve our environment and conserve and limit our energy consumptions, the fact that we’re addicted to our comfortable lifestyles means that we’re dependent upon energy sources. So it is our responsibility as advocates for a healthy environment to ensure that the ways in which we generate and produce energy are done so as to meet the needs of both the consumers of energy and the environments that we exist within. With knowledge gained, I now struggle to agree with the “big oil” perspective that was previously mentioned. On this trip it was apparent that several of my cohorts are interested in pursuing futures within this industry, and while it might be the gut reaction of the greater Nicholas School cohort to be appalled at their decisions, I would not be. If anyone were to lead the industry I would want a Nicholas School student to be that person.  As an advocate for a healthy world, healthy people and healthy future I believe the Nicholas School students have the skills necessary to critically assess the risks and ethically move forward. Given the rapid rate at which the energy sector can adapt and change, I look forward to the future of energy to see where we are and what will be developed next.

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