It was the biggest event so far at the CERAWeek by IHS Markit energy forum in Houston, Texas: A special address from Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state. And they turned up in their droves to hear from America’s top diplomat, and a close associate of President Donald Trump.
The doors of the Ballroom of the Americas in the downtown Hilton were locked as Pompeo took the stage alongside Daniel Yergin, the energy expert and author who is the driving force behind the event. There were around 2,000 people in the room, I would say. Journalists had to use a special entrance for security reasons, though it was never explained exactly why.
Pompeo and Yergin — both Californians by origin — go back some way. The secretary reminded the audience of his days in the oil industry, after he graduated from the US military academy at West Point and before he became head of the Central Intelligence Agency. He read and learned a lot from Yergin’s Pulitzer-winning history of the oil industry, “The Prize.”
He is still learning from Yergin, he revealed. Just recently, Pompeo called the author into the State Department to get advice on US energy policy. He also took some recent counsel from one of his predecessors in the department, Henry Kissinger. You could hear the names drop in the hall.
Pompeo’s address was a 20-minute hymn of praise to the US energy industry, which had launched a “new age of discovery” in the world, he said. Like Spindletop — the Texan oil well that had inaugurated the age of US oil when it gushed in 1901 — the new techniques of shale oil production, such as fracking and horizontal drilling, had brought about a renaissance in US business life, and it was time to go out and tell the world, Pompeo said.
His message was that the American system of free enterprise, good business conduct, transparency and accountability was the model for the rest of the world to follow. He put it in stark contrast to the statist philosophies of China, Russia and Iran, which, he said, used business as a tool of their murky foreign policies.
There was much nodding in approval around the hall when he attacked China for its expansionist policies in Southeast Asia, which he
said were designed to stop regional governments exploiting the natural resources on the ocean floor.
There was a loud mutter of approval when Pompeo turned his guns on Russia. Moscow’s policies in Ukraine and Syria were all designed to give them a greater foothold in European and Middle East energy markets, he explained.
Iran had made Iraq into a vassal state for the same reason, and he reiterated US policy to teach Tehran a lesson by driving oil exports from the country to zero by the application of draconian sanctions.
Venezuela and Cuba were also listed in the cast of “bad actors” on the global stage, and Pompeo left the audience in no doubt that his ultimate aim was to force change in both countries by the application of energy-related sanctions. The US would also like to blunt Russian and Iranian meddling in the region, which Pompeo said was in dire need of stability and security, US-style.
All these are long-term strategic goals, Pompeo said, and achieving them will not be straightforward, or easy. But at the end of his talk, in a fireside chat with Yergin, he left open the intriguing possibility that he might not be the man who would see them through to fruition.
Harking back to his days in the energy industry, he said: “I’m the first secretary of state that can actually run a lathe, so if this whole diplomatic thing falls through, I’m ready to get back at it.”
Judging from the enthusiastic reception his speech received, Pompeo will not be short of a job in the energy business in the next few years.
- Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai. Twitter: @frankkanedubai