Houston is undeniably a multi-cultural city with a vibrant and well-patronised arts and sports scene. A lot of that patronage can be directly linked to fortunes made in the oil and gas industry. It is fitting therefore that one of the largest annual exhibitions, drawing upwards of 80,000 attendees, is held in Houston. Showcased at Reliant Park, a venue large enough for the huge displays of innovative equipment, OTC (Offshore Technology Conference) is always in the first full week of May.
Flights, hotels and rental cars are booked well in advance for exhibitors and attendees streaming in from over 110 countries. Attracting upwards of 2,500 exhibitors, the conference is organised by a consortium of 13 industry organisations and societies. And it’s not just those in the actual business who attend. Zafrullah Khan, a banker from Kenya, told me he had travelled the distance to learn as much as possible about an industry new to his country.
Wandering the OTC aisles yesterday, booths filled with primary coloured compressors, pumps, turbines and other bits, and pieces, related to the oil and gas industry, listening to the welter of accents around me, I was struck by the vast differences of the countries involved in one industry, that of oil and gas. Brazilians rubbed besuited shoulders with Saudis, Egyptians with Vietnamese, Ghanaians with Mexicans, Nigerians with Colombians, all speaking the industry lingua franca, English.
The one ingredient missing in the cocktail of cultures was women in senior roles. Picking up a brochure compiled by Hays, recruiting experts for the industry, I read the break down of demographics globally, by age and by gender. The highest percentage of women in the industry were shown to be in the Americas, both north and south, 10.2% and 10.3% respectively with the smallest percentage not surprisingly being in the Middle East.
In a session Women in Industry Sharing Experiences, Maria das Graças Silva Foster, a woman who has risen to lead Brazil’s national oil company Petrobras, wryly admitted to embarrassment that an industry, and exhibition, touting some extraordinary technological advances is still mired in issues of equality between the sexes.
And then as I mulled the issue of diversity I was confronted with another conundrum. The blue and white saltire of Scotland above a phalanx of booths, separated by a couple of aisles from the Union Flag which of course includes the saltire, and under which the United Kingdom’s 53 exhibitors were stabled. Why the separate blocks of booths I wondered? Not having lived in Britain for a number of years I thought maybe I had missed an important change to the Union; that of Scotland’s total devolution. On enquiring I was assured the country north of the Hadrian’s Wall was still a part of the United Kingdom. The difference, I learned, was that those under UK aegis were funded by industry, and those under the Scottish flag were funded by the Scottish government. I imagine attendees from Qatar were as flummoxed as I.
As always it is the models that amaze me most at OTC. Not the leggy kind, but the intricate replicas of jack-ups, semi-submersibles and drill ships coming out of shipyards from Singapore or South Korea. One oilfield services and product company broke with tradition and chose not to display a single piece of machinery – no iron roughneck this year for NOV – but rather a clever mock-up of a cinema showing brief films of their manufacturing capabilities, and touting posters for movies such as Life of Rig, or Corrosion Busters, or Drill the Line, or my particular favourite The Man with the Golden Bit.
It would be wonderful to think young women graduating with engineering degrees will start making a name for themselves at future industry events. In the meantime the energy and hubbub around the halls of OTC remains constant, and once again Houston has hosted a dynamic exhibition that showcases both the industry and diversity of the city proud to be called the oil capital of the world.