Eavesdropping in Houston

Overheard: Oil and gas experts weigh in on the future of low-carbon energy and Houston's role in the movement

From Rex Tillerson's thoughts on leadership and politics to Houston's role in the low-carbon energy movement, check out these powerful quotes from the 2020 KPMG Global Energy Conference. Getty Images

As the energy capital of the world, Houston can't get complacent. The oil and gas industry is changing — carbon is out and finding clean energy alternatives is in.

At the 2020 KPMG Global Energy Conference on June 5 and 6, hundreds of energy professionals listened to the O&G elite — even including former Secretary of State and former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson — give their two cents about the revolution. Day two of the conference featured the Houston Low Carbon Energy Climate Summit by the Center for Houston's Future.

In case you missed it, here are a few powerful quotes from both days of the program — from Houston's role in the low-carbon energy movement to Tillerson's leadership expertise.

"Texas is one of those places where you can just get stuff done.”

— Cindy Yeilding, senior vice president at BP, says Texans are willing to collaborate on this. In the "Visions of our Energy Future" panel during the Low Carbon Energy Summit on Thursday, June 6, she predicted Houston will be a net zero carbon city by 2040 or 2035.

“One of the things we need to focus on is being able to attract and retain talent.”

— Mary Anne Brelinsky, CEO of EDF Trading, stressing the importance of talent in the effort to keep Houston the energy capital of the world. Brelinsky advocated for corporations and its execs getting involved with local universities. "We're competing against Silicon Valley," she says in the panel.

"You’ve got the source, and you’ve got the sinks. … Houston is going to be one of our focal points.”

— Charlene Olivia Russell, vice president of Low Carbon Strategies at Oxy, on how Houston is set up for success when it comes to staying as a power player in the global low carbon energy platform, but, during the panel, she emphasizes collaboration needs to continue happening.

“When Shell agreed to sponsor this summit, it was pitched as a climate change summit. It was changed to a low-carbon summit because some people in this room are uncomfortable with the phrase 'climate change.'"

— Jason Klein, vice president of U.S. Energy Transition Strategy at Shell, says at the "Energy Transformations" panel during the Low Carbon Energy Summit on Thursday, June 6.

"If we want to be the leader and the energy capital of the world, we need to attract talent, capital investment, and innovation, and if the people are going to do those things think that we don’t even like to talk about those things, then they aren’t going to come here — they’re going to go to San Francisco.”

— Klein continues. The audience responded with a round of applause.

“I think it is important as Americans to remember that our greatest strength and the most important element to our national security has been that we are a nation that has many allies and friends. Our adversaries — Russia, China, North Korea, Iran — have no allies or friends.”

— Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who served as CEO of ExxonMobil from 2006 to 2016. Tillerson discussed a wide range of topics on Wednesday, June 5, at the 2020 KPMG Global Energy Conference in his fireside chat with Regina Mayor, global sector head and U.S. national sector leader of energy and natural resources at KPMG US. Click here to watch the full interview.

“We’re all a work in progress. You’re never done. I’m not done — I’m still a work in progress. If you have that view and you have that set of values that are never going to change … [then] I can keep developing as a human being.”

— Tillerson says of leadership lessons learned. He's an avid proponent of the Boy Scouts of America organization, and cited many valuable lessons he's learned about himself and about leading people from his involvement in the nonprofit.

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Building Houston

 
 

When examining how you can better prepare and respond to ongoing climate-related challenges, the CRE community needs to prioritize marginalized communities that are already experiencing most of the negative impacts. Photography by Peter Molick

Houston is no stranger to hurricanes, and in recent years winter storms have become an increasing concern. Following the winter freeze in 2021, more than 4 million Texans were left without power, water, or heat. The state’s infrastructure system was adversely impacted concurrently — including workplaces, hospitals, transportation, homes, drinking water distribution, electric power generation, agriculture, and grocery stores. Now, a new potential disaster is on the horizon. Recent research shows Houston is most likely to be affected by wildfires, a climate-related challenge that our city has not previously faced.

According to the Gensler Research Institute’s 2022 U.S. Climate Action Survey, since 2019, only 18 percent of Americans believe their communities are built to withstand climate change. The good news is Americans overwhelmingly agree that addressing climate change is urgent. The question many are asking is — “How can we take action to better prepare buildings and cities to weather the climate challenge?” The solution is simple. In order to understand where we need to go, we must understand how we got here.

With a population that has more than doubled in the past 50 years, it is challenging for most Houstonians to imagine a time when The Bayou City was nothing more than agricultural lands and oil fields. Today, Houston is known for being the fourth-most populous city in the United States. It is a sprawling concrete jungle home to the world’s largest concentration of healthcare and research institutions. When reflecting on the past 50 years, one can’t help but evaluate the city’s successes and shortcomings. While Houston has succeeded in becoming a diverse, international city, we have sacrificed the very ecology that once made up one of the country’s most productive agricultural areas. By 1980, Houston possessed the least amount of green space per person in the country.

As new developments popped up across the city, it became difficult to convince developers to pursue third-party certifications such as LEED, a globally recognized symbol of sustainability that provides the framework for designing healthy, efficient, carbon saving buildings. We can credit Hines with being one of the few developers in Houston to prioritize green design during the early-2000s. City leaders also began advocating for resilient strategies and more green space to attract and retain international talent and businesses. In recent years, we have seen an increase in buildings that are achieving LEED certification, and soon it will become the baseline.

The Houston Advanced Research Center, Photography by Shau Lin Hon, Slyworks Photography

An example of a project leading the way for resilient design is The Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC). In 2017 the organization completed work on its LEED Platinum Certified headquarters which was designed to meet the ENERGY STAR certification rate of 99 (out of 100). This means that the building is more efficient than 99 percent of all office buildings in the United States. Skanska is another construction and development company bringing a sustainable mindset to downtown Houston with its work on Bank of America Tower. In 2019, the 775,000 square foot building became the largest LEED v4 Platinum Core and Shell certified project in the world to date and was developed with harvesting technology that will significantly reduce energy usage.

It’s also important to understand the impact that the climate crisis is having on people. 91 percent of U.S. Gen Z/Millennials have been affected by extreme weather events since 2019, the most of any generation. These experiences have resulted in two generations preparing to react and combat climate change and has encouraged a spirit of transparency among companies who choose to share their environmental goals and strategies.

For architects and designers, addressing building and energy codes is proving to be the next big design consideration. As codes progress in the coming years, the result will be more unique and unexpected building designs.

When reimagining the use of buildings, Architects Paulina Abella and Tayler Trojcak propose an experimental process for repurposing vacant buildings called High Hackers. The concept provides an opportunity for developers to offer prime downtown real estate to people with diverse skill sets, whom they call “hackers,” to pursue projects shaped by their individual ideas. These hackers—makers, artists, and academics—will work alongside one another in spaces that encourage them to coexist with creatives from other fields and disciplines. More importantly, it fosters a collaborative, organic, and innovative workflow.

When examining how you can better prepare and respond to ongoing climate-related challenges, we encourage prioritizing marginalized communities that are already experiencing most of the negative impacts. Promoting awareness and optimism in our communities is another simple yet effective way to make a difference. For businesses, creating a sense of continuity in the face of climate events, investing in energy and resource efficiency and adaptation, and addressing insurability and the long-term value of real estate will ultimately help lead Houston and its community members toward a place of preparedness and resiliency.

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Rives Taylor directs Gensler’s Global Design Resilience teams and initiatives and has been a faculty member of both Rice University and the University of Houston for 30 years. Maria Perez is a design resilience leader for Gensler’s South Central region and director of sustainable design based in Gensler’s Houston office.

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