guest column

Clutch City: Is 2020 a time of devastation or doubling down for Houston?

Houston has proven to be resilient time and time again. In a guest column, Amy Chronis explores if 2020 has the potential to be Clutch City's breaking point. Photo via Pexels

"Clutch City" may be Houston's most befitting nickname — and it has proven to stand the test of time. Whoever coined the term likely had no idea in how many ways this moniker would be tested and upheld over the next 20-plus years.

Time and time again the fourth largest city in America has proven to be resilient, whether it be a natural catastrophe, tough economic times or the global pandemic. But, will the multi-dimensional stresses of 2020 break the city's winning streak?

Houston is also well known for being The Energy Capital of the World, a qualifier that has meant record revenue and jobs growth, as well as weathering several oil and gas economic down cycles. While the city has taken many hits from previous downturns, it has always been able to recover. The oil, gas and chemicals downturn of 2020, however, is unlike anything we've ever seen before — and could fundamentally transform the energy industry, as well as Houston's economy.

This year, the industry has been grappling with the energy transition while it is also is facing the "Great Compression," sustained low oil prices on top of diminished oil demand from the global pandemic, and the "Great Crew Change." The confluence of these simultaneous challenges could have profound impacts on the workforce and future of work in the oil, gas and chemicals industry. According to Deloitte's latest report, 70 percent of jobs in the industry lost during the pandemic may not return by the end of 2021.

The silver lining "clutch" play may be that Houston already has been on the path and is continuing to diversify its businesses, even within the energy and industrial sectors. The Greater Houston Partnership touts Houston's key industries beyond energy, including advanced manufacturing, aerospace and aviation, life sciences and biotechnology, digital technology and transportation and logistics. Notably, the common thread linking these industries is the need for greater digitalization of and within business models.

The encouraging news is that Houston has anticipated this need and factored it into its future planning. For example, the development of Ion Houston is designed to be the anchor of a 16-plus acre Innovation District in Houston dedicated to innovation, entrepreneurship and technology. This could be the type of investment the city needs to focus on as we grapple with a hard-hit economy. At this point, it is beyond choosing to prioritize moving to what's been called Industry 4.0 — digitalization should be a priority for companies wanting to survive and stay competitive.

According to an analysis conducted by the Greater Houston Partnership of the largest Texas cities, the following sectors had the most VC deals in technology over the last 20 years: life science, oil and gas, oncology, B2B payments, infrastructure and FemTech. The analysis also showcased the top niche tech specialties outside of oil and gas spanned multiple industries including life sciences, legal, space, environmental and FinTech. Houston's dual effort of industry diversification and focus on digitalization has been prescient.

COVID-19 has further accelerated the importance for companies across sectors to get on the fast track to Industry 4.0. The time for transformation is now. The oil, gas and chemicals sector, as well as all sectors, should start building a workforce for the future in order to survive and break the barriers to entry to Industry 4.0. This effort typically includes attracting people across generations by promoting sustainability, offering new digital ways of working, making flexible/remote working a permanent reality while building a sense of pride amongst the workforce toward the work product and organization itself.

Organizational agility is one way through this downturn. Challenging traditional ways of thinking and functioning will likely be required for companies to remain competitive.

The advance work and planning Houston has undertaken to diversify its economy by expanding its industries and focusing on digitalization and the future of workforce, together may ensure that we keep Houston strong and that the "Clutch City" lives up to its name.

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Amy Chronis is the Houston managing partner at Deloitte.

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Building Houston

 
 

Business and government leaders in the Houston area hope the region can become a hub for CCS activity. Photo via Getty Images

Three big businesses — Air Liquide, BASF, and Shell — have added their firepower to the effort to promote large-scale carbon capture and storage for the Houston area’s industrial ecosystem.

These companies join 11 others that in 2021 threw their support behind the initiative. Participants are evaluating how to use safe carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology at Houston-area facilities that provide energy, power generation, and advanced manufacturing for plastics, motor fuels, and packaging.

Other companies backing the CCS project are Calpine, Chevron, Dow, ExxonMobil, INEOS, Linde, LyondellBasell, Marathon Petroleum, NRG Energy, Phillips 66, and Valero.

Business and government leaders in the Houston area hope the region can become a hub for CCS activity.

“Large-scale carbon capture and storage in the Houston region will be a cornerstone for the world’s energy transition, and these companies’ efforts are crucial toward advancing CCS development to achieve broad scale commercial impact,” Charles McConnell, director of University of Houston’s Center for Carbon Management in Energy, says in a news release.

McConnell and others say CCS could help Houston and the rest of the U.S. net-zero goals while generating new jobs and protecting current jobs.

CCS involves capturing carbon dioxide from industrial activities that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere and then injecting it into deep underground geologic formations for secure and permanent storage. Carbon dioxide from industrial users in the Houston area could be stored in nearby onshore and offshore storage sites.

An analysis of U.S Department of Energy estimates shows the storage capacity along the Gulf Coast is large enough to store about 500 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is equivalent to more than 130 years’ worth of industrial and power generation emissions in the United States, based on 2018 data.

“Carbon capture and storage is not a single technology, but rather a series of technologies and scientific breakthroughs that work in concert to achieve a profound outcome, one that will play a significant role in the future of energy and our planet,” says Gretchen Watkins, U.S. president of Shell. “In that spirit, it’s fitting this consortium combines CCS blueprints and ambitions to crystalize Houston’s reputation as the energy capital of the world while contributing to local and U.S. plans to help achieve net-zero emissions.”

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