For many in the North Sea industry, OTC in Houston has become part of the annual ritual. Unlike many such events which come and go in fashion, this one remains the top destination for many of the industry’s players and politicians from a’ the airts.
The Offshore Technology Conference has been going strong since 1969 which means it has seen a few extreme ups and downs in the price of oil and plenty gloomy prognostications about the future.
But in a sense, the event’s own longevity points to the underlying truth that this is an industry which has long since learned to take such fluctuations in its stride, and perhaps even turn them to advantage.
For some of the old Aberdeen lags who have packed their suitcases once more and headed for Texas over the past few days, OTC is a great social occasion as well as a business one – a chance to meet old friends and particularly renew contact with many in the international industry who have, at some stage in their careers, passed through the North Sea industry.
At this time, these are particularly vital contacts. On the face of it, the numbers do not look great for the North Sea in terms of keeping the faith and continuing to invest. But often, numbers do not tell the whole story and it is important to have well-placed people in the industry who instinctively understand why the North Sea can, and must, have a future.
Each year also takes a shoal of new recruits on the Houston mission and, again, this is particularly necessary at the present time.
Just as in the late 1990s, many businesses which have hitherto lived comfortably off the North Sea must now take the opportunity to internationalise their activity and Houston is as good a starting point as any.
It’s also true that when the whole world is looking to cut its costs in order to maintain production at a profitable level, any company which has technology with the potential to contribute to that outcome is bound to find a welcome in the global marketplace. It was as an interchange for scientific and technical knowledge that OTC began and that is still one its key roles.
Both United Kingdom Trade and Investment and Scottish Development International support OTC to the hilt. For both organisations, it is the centrepiece of their international events calendar on the oil and gas side of their activities. This continues to be a sound piece of judgment.
Any indication of retreat from the traditionally strong British presence at OTC would, at the present time, send out entirely the wrong signal.
There is a critical need to exude positive and optimistic messages about the future of the North Sea, including explanations of beneficial fiscal and regulatory changes. And the best way of achieving that is to be there and do it in person.
It is also important to have a coherent message from Team GB. This is something that I called for in my Review of Scottish Exporting for the UK Government last year.
The roles, not only of the trade promotional organisations but also such relevant players as UK Export Finance and, in the case of some markets, DFID, have to be offered as “one home team working together” in support of industry and investment.
Looking back to that report, which was largely influenced by what the industry told me, it called for an enhanced “oil & gas specialist cadre within UKTI staffed by people who have had long engagement with the sector” with a significantly increased number of personnel based both in the UK and overseas markets to provide effective support, including secondees from the industry.
Whatever the outcome of the election, that plea will remain valid and should be acted on by government as part of the general approach to recognising what needs to be done in the face of the challenging new environment.
It is an essential part of the effort to maintain Scottish and UK jobs in the sector that a real effort should be made to maximise our global reach, for example, by getting in on the ground floor of major new developments. And that requires top class commercial diplomacy wherever these opportunities arise.
The UK reception in Houston is always a big bash and particular interest will attach this time round to the keynote speech from Dr Andy Samuel, the chief executive of the new Aberdeen-based regulator, the UK Oil & Gas Authority. International promotion of the North Sea industry is very much part of the Authority’s remit in line with the Wood Report recommendations.
Samuel has described the new body as “a catalyst for change and a facilitator of actions, driving performance and removing unnecessary barriers to help protect the current production base and secure a positive future for the UK oil and gas industry”. That’s a pretty good mission statement and a strong message to transmit from a Houston platform.
In spite of the global downturn, the OTC is expected to be as big as ever with exhibitors from 130 countries and more than 100,000 visitors. Whatever other cutbacks may be taking place, there is still a need to meet, talk, sell – and maybe even have a few drinks.
Good luck to all our companies in Houston for OTC ‘15. Flying the flag has never been more necessary.