CERAWeek Diary: Houston humor shows oil industry can be a barrel of laughs

CERAWeek Diary: Houston humor shows oil industry can be a barrel of laughs
Attendees at IHS Markit's CERAWeek conference watch the keynote address by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo from the George Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas, US March 12, 2019. (Reuters)
Updated 15 March 2019

CERAWeek Diary: Houston humor shows oil industry can be a barrel of laughs

CERAWeek Diary: Houston humor shows oil industry can be a barrel of laughs

You don’t usually associate the oil industry with humor, but a few days at the CERAWeek by IHS Markit forum in Houston will change your mind. Beneath all the talk of pipelines, polymers and energy policy, there is a layer of levity that, much like the substance itself, can be sweet, light and crude.

I’ll leave that last category for another time, but as a sample of the subtle comedy that underlays the proceedings in Texas, here are a few of the best moments from five days of energy entertainment.

William Clay Ford, chairman of the car company and great-grandson of the man who revolutionized the motor industry over a century ago, was talking about the need to satisfy your customers, before he reflected: “But if my great grandfather had consulted people about what they wanted back then, most of them would have asked for a faster horse.”

He will also be in trouble when he gets home, as he revealed to the audience in the Americas ballroom that he had a secret fleet of high-performance Mustangs that he liked to drive from time to time, but he had to keep them in different locations so Mrs. Ford would not find out about his extravagance.

Rick Perry, the US energy secretary, has an engaging informal Texan style that went down well at the press conference that followed his keynote address. He swapped jokes with a Russian journalist who asked him a serious question about the possibility of applying stricter sanctions against Russia because of its support of the Maduro regime in Venezuela, revealing that he had enjoyed a barbecue in St. Petersburg on a recent trip to the country.

This is almost blasphemous for a man from the Lone Star State, which prides itself on the best barbecues in the world. “Intellectual property theft,” he quipped.

Perry also came up with maybe the best line of the whole event, in relation to his willingness to talk seriously to the Democrat opposition about environmental policy. “I’m always ready to talk. Just because we disagree, you don’t have to be disagreeable.” Somebody should tell the president.

Talking of Mr. Trump, the secretary-general of OPEC, Mohammed Barkindo, had a subtly deadpan response to a question about the effect the president’s tweets had on the oil price. “We welcome the president joining the dialogue, after all he is a major producer,” he replied.

Suhail Al-Mazrouei, the UAE energy minister, also had a good line in impromptu anecdote about the price of crude. He was appointed minister when the oil price was above $100 per barrel, but pretty soon after it crashed all the way down to $30. “Some people in Abu Dhabi said that maybe if we change the minister the price would go back up,” he joked.

The smugly self-confident executives from the US shale industry were also very amusing, though I doubt they realized it. They have taken to referring to the prodigious increase in crude output from the Permian Basin and other reservoirs as the “shale gale,” and explained the basic commercial premise of their business as “converting land into cash flow.” The one essential ingredient of their industry, one said, was “great rock”, meaning good geological assets but open to misinterpretation.

My personal favorite moment of the week was the sight that greeted me one morning as I came down the escalators of power to the main entrance of the event at the Hilton Americas, to be greeted by group of protesters dressed as Star Wars soldiers and Grim Reapers, complaining about the damage fracking was doing to the Texan countryside. “Our future needs to be green,” read one banner.

One of the Houston cops who good-naturedly ushered them away from the hotel muttered: “You all look pretty green already to me.”

Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai. Twitter: @frankkanedubai