Amanda Brock is CEO of Houston-based Water Standard, which is a pioneering technology focused company in the oil and gas industry that specialises in enhanced oil recovery (EOR). As part of Morson’s Women in Oil and Gas campaign, we spoke to Amanda about her career, challenges faced by the industry, and the opportunities available to young women in 2014.
Words: Jenny Morris
Hello Amanda – as CEO of Water Standard, can you provide an overview of the company and the service it provides?
Water Standard is an engineering and technology company that focuses on water, seawater and produced water treatment for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) in the upstream oil and gas industry. In 2008 we raised private equity to grow the company, and in late 2009 began to focus primarily on the upstream sector. Our first step was to hire process engineers from the water industry who were able to recognise technology available in the water industry that could be adapted for the unique needs of the oil and gas industry. As oil prices rose, there was a renewed interest and commitment to evaluate technologies that could increase recovery levels – this meant seriously looking at understanding and implementing improved and enhanced oil recovery.
I felt that it was the right time for water based EOR; CO2 was great but had its limitations particularly offshore, so there was a real opportunity to work on proving how to implement water-based EOR – using chemical processes or managing salinity and hardness levels along with better water injection, to increase recoveries.
How new is that technology?
Well, some of it is new and some of it is not. Back in the 80s a lot of the Majors and Independents began to look at chemical EOR (CEOR) where they added polymer, alkali and surfactants to water that was then injected into candidate reservoirs to increase recoveries. For economic reasons operators moved away from CEOR following the 80s oil price crash. China continued implementing CEOR successfully. But with higher commodity prices and a renewed emphasis on increasing recoveries, and extending the life of mature oilfields before decommissioning, operators and NOCs are again focusing on EOR. Globally there are many mature oilfields that have been producing for decades that still have significant quantities of oil remaining in reservoirs. With improvements in technology, producers are looking at revitalizing these older conventional assets and evaluating methods to cost effectively improve recovery and reverse decline curves. These new technologies include improvements in water based EOR, particularly CEOR and Low Salinity water floods where in certain reservoirs it is possible to recover in excess of 20% of Original Oil in Place (OOIP). This is where Water Standard is focused; delivering innovative water treatment solutions to ensure you can flexibly meet the changing and challenging water quality a reservoir needs during an EOR Program.
When we started you could argue we were a little before our time; it was lonely out front and many people needed to be convinced – but the economics are so compelling both on- and off-shore that everybody is now beginning to focus on how you implement EOR – getting more oil out of the ground where you have already invested to find it.
You have forged a successful career for yourself in the oil and gas industry – in your opinion, is the industry now a more accessible career path for women?
It is fundamentally different from a few decades ago, or even 10 years ago. I think the industry is now affirmatively looking for talented young women. I think all of the players in the Industry, from oil field service companies to NOCs, Majors and Independents, are going out of their way to hire qualified young women, and place them in positions where they can succeed regardless of gender. At some point the issue of being a woman may have an impact. But I think the industry is doing a much better job in allowing women to determine what their personal limits may be, rather than the industry making that determination for them.
Do you think there is enough information available about careers in the oil and gas industry that is attractive and enticing for young people as a whole, but also specifically young women?
No, I don’t. I think we do a lousy job before people come to university, and even when people are at university, of highlighting the opportunities for women in a global industry where there are so many diverse opportunities and different competencies needed. I think we also do an underwhelming job of explaining what the lifestyle could be for woman – the jobs and opportunities are there from engineers, to finance, to business development, to technology. At the moment there aren’t a lot of women at the higher levels of the industry for young women to reach out to– this has to do with several factors related to the evolution of the industry and when women began to climb the ranks in greater numbers. On a percentage basis the male to female ratio in upper management is pretty dismal. But it is changing.
But, based on those factors, it will improve in time – in your opinion?
It should improve – it has to improve.
What challenges does the industry currently face?
There is a significant skills shortage and a skills gap. It is very alarming to look at the intellectual capital that is going to exit this business through retirement in the next 10 years. We have young people coming in, and older people beginning to retire – taking with them incredible intellectual capital and experience. The old concept of a “lifer” is no longer as prevalent, so you are subsequently seeing a lot of attrition in the middle ranks as people move between companies seeking better opportunities. So we’re experiencing a potentially disruptive combination of a retiring workforce, skills and experience gap, a lot of movement and high salaries – which are supported right now by the demand – but then you have to look forward and say ‘what happens if there’s a downturn?’.
When making your own career choices, were you always drawn to the energy industry?
Yes – I have always been in the infrastructure business. I’m actually a lawyer by training – so, how did a lawyer get to work primarily with engineers? What fascinated me was the idea of working with very practical people and bridging the gap between brilliant people who could do, and the commercial application of what they do. In some cases, the most unlikely people on paper can be the best business development people in practice for example if given the chance to transition from being “just” the engineer or technologist, and focus on why they are doing something; how it commercially fits into the industry and how it can change the industry.
How have you approached your career, as a lawyer by training working with the engineering community?
I’ll give you two examples. Early in my career I transitioned out of the legal department and was given the responsibility of running a power plant business in the United States. I had never been to a power plant in my life. The theory was that being commercially oriented I would listen and learn, figure out the problems and then fix them. Before I began I had to go to a power plant and actually see how one worked. On my first visit I made a critical, rookie mistake – and I cringe when I think about this – I did not bring flat shoes. But I was determined to make it through. I had my hard hat and goggles on – and my heels. Four engineers took me up and down catwalks, but I couldn’t put my heels down and had to tiptoe around the power plant! Years later I was in China where another power plant was being commissioned, and some of the same engineers were there. They were laughing, and admitted they had done it deliberately and watched me struggle with my heels – so, you have to earn your chops.
My second example is that you should always challenge. If you are not an engineer, the best thing you can do is not to try and be an engineer, but understand enough and then ask why. Just constantly ask that question; why can’t you do that? Why wouldn’t that work? By questioning things, you start to have conversations where the light bulb goes on and one thinks ‘well you know, it could work if you…’ and the creative juices begin flowing. In our experience, this constant questioning and thinking out of the box has resulted in the most valuable intellectual property we have. By enabling people and asking questions and creating an environment that is conducive to creative thinking, you are able to create significant value.
What advice would you give to young women thinking of embarking on a career in the energy industry?
My advice would be for them to be flexible and embrace the challenges; to not be intimidated by the opportunities that will present themselves and to just go for it. The rewards for this generation of women entering this Industry will be tremendous, and a woman’s perspective – even in engineering – is different in a way that can have very powerful and positive impacts for a company; more curiosity, more creativity, better at listening and trying to understand the problem that is being faced while supporting a consensus environment.
What have your career highlights been to date?
Surviving – and just loving this industry. It is a dynamic industry, full of brilliant, exceptional people that I learn from every day. It is frustrating, it is a hard taskmaster, it is global – the people you meet are from every country, from every nationality, every background – and they are brought together by one common focus, and that is energy. There is always something new, and there is always a new horizon or challenge. The energy industry has been responsible for more innovation in clean technology and developing environmentally sensitive best practices than it is given credit for. Unfortunately when some young people think about the energy industry they invariably think about fossil fuels with many of the stereotypical reactions to that sector. If a person is thinking about a career in energy that also means they can go into wind, solar, geo thermal, and biofuels – it’s all energy, we’re in the energy industry, and that’s what we should be promoting. We need to address some of the stigmas, because one thing is certain: there are many ways you can make the world a better place by joining the energy industry.
For more information about Water Standard, please visit www.waterstandard.com