HSE Conference Marks a Tipping Point for the Industry

Source: Getty Images.

Every 2 years, a large contingent of health, safety, and environment (HSE) and sustainability practitioners in the oil and gas industry get together to do what SPE enables best—sharing knowledge and collaborating. Despite the economic downturn draining some talent from the industry, the 2018 SPE International Conference on Health, Safety, Security, the Environment, and Social Responsibility reminded many that the continuing good work and the decades of developing a knowledge community are reasons for celebration.

Each gathering is colored by context and location. The 2016 global conference was held in Stavanger and attracted more than 700 participants and contributors. This year was the Middle East’s turn to play host to the conference. In Abu Dhabi, more than 900 industry practitioners dropped their competitive gloves and donned their collaborative garb for 4 intense days. From dawn to dusk every day, a flurry of technical sessions, panel sessions, e-posters, meetings, and exhibitor booths—not to mention all of the social moments for professional friends to catch up with one another—filled Jumeirah at Etihad Towers.

Several veterans noted that this year’s HSE conference was the best yet, and I found myself agreeing without quite knowing what exactly had made this conference stand out. Certainly, the venue facilitated interaction in an energizing manner—and that did matter—but I suspect a maturity stage gate was reached. Safety, the big brother of this family of disciplines, was the focus of 15 sessions; however, close behind were environment, health, social responsibility, and sustainability, which were the focus of a further 18 sessions that presented more than 130 technical papers. Demand ran high, sessions were full, and the audience was engaged. While there was much to congratulate, there was no time to rest on one’s laurels. The best practices presented were not a theoretical wish list; they were to be seen in action, through tangible examples of what was working well and what was working less well.

Professional pride was very evident and rightly so. It was not an arrogant pride but rather one that is humble and says this industry is worthy of my time, my talent, my ideas, my energy, and my sacrifices—yes, sacrifices. In this industry, the work/life balance is widely acknowledged to be desirable but is equally widely known to be a unicorn. Isn’t it interesting that an industry that motivates so many good people to pour their heart and soul into its ongoing existence is also an industry that so many other good people fear and loathe? Will we ever turn that dynamic into a constructive tension at scale? Many companies and individuals manage to challenge that dynamic in innovative ways that truly advance progress, but we have not yet reached scale on any of the disciplines except safety.

Can we accelerate that journey, particularly as we start to realize just how deeply our future is interlocked with the well-being of the planet from which we extract and transform energy vital to human life?

Abdulla Al Marzooqi, manager of health, safety, and environment for the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, speaks at the opening of the 2018 SPE International Conference and Exhibition on Health, Safety, Security, Environment, and Social Responsibility on 17 April. Al Marzooqi was the chair of the conference’s executive committee.


The sense of reaching a tipping point permeated the conference. Each of the disciplines was going much further than before, be it safety embracing brain science, health going beyond the fence, environment going far beyond compliance with innovative solutions and breathtaking technical prowess, or social responsibility showcasing the application of best practice in labor rights and land rights or community-liaison officer development.

Sustainable-development topics were integrated throughout the program. Comfort levels clearly appeared to be higher than ever, even if only measured by the number of times the UN Sustainable Development Goals were mentioned. The Climate and the Circular Economy sessions were great examples of professionals no longer skirting the issues but instead speaking deeply and knowledgeably about our connection with these issues while still having many questions that need resolving.

By the end of these types of events, most people are exhausted and want to get home. The conference in Abu Dhabi was no exception. We were all exhausted, no doubt, but we could also see very clearly that many people did not want to leave the conversations. They wanted to stay connected and go deeper. The new SPE HSE and Sustainability LinkedIn group ( will help sustain the conversations. The ongoing work of the SPE HSE Advisory Committee and the HSE program committees at many of the 110 events run by SPE this year, the work of committees from the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers and IPIECA, and SPE Connect and HSE Now are other means to ensure the practice network continues.

SPE events offer phenomenal internal and external engagement opportunities where one can benefit from “safety in numbers” conversations that put aside competition for a few days and focus on collaboration. This level of internal engagement, of collaboration, then enables greater integration, in our case of HSE and, increasingly, sustainability practices. The new SPE 5-year Strategic Plan contains an express commitment to enable external engagement; this conference has been a great showcase of what that can look like and how productive it can be. The environment and social responsibility programs were particularly rich in this regard.

Another factor that might explain the overall sense of high energy was the level of intergenerational engagement. Developing people in our industry takes a long time. The downturn has accelerated the crew change, and the industry hemorrhaged highly experienced and competent talent that cannot be replaced fast enough. The Abu Dhabi conference included 3 days of programming events with university and high school students, with a focus on careers in the oil and gas industry and related themes. We need to recruit, and accelerate the development of, young talent while showing them the fantastic career paths still offered in this highly responsible industry that is essential to the wellbeing of society as exemplified by the winner of the second IOGP Young Professional Award, Marcin Nazuruk, BP’s upstream human performance global lead advisor, presented on the first day of the conference by Gordon Ballard, IOGP executive director.

When I arrived home, my 10-year-old asked me what I learned at the conference. After some thought, I came up with these takeaways.

We should feel tremendous professional pride in how our industry contributes to society, and we should find humble but smart ways to ensure we get more credit. The industry’s phenomenal contribution to socioeconomic development over the past 150 years requires a historic perspective. Has our industry’s effect been a net positive? That is a legitimate question, and it is one to which most of us would hope the answer is a resounding “yes.” The equation, however, is not over. The energy scenarios of the World Energy Outlook and the International Energy Agency suggest that oil and gas is going to be needed for quite some time to come, providing time not just to hope the industry’s effect has been a net positive but also to ensure that it is.

I will take the liberty of quoting Bernard Looney, chief executive officer of BP Upstream, from the recent 2018 SPE Oil and Gas Evening in Ireland: “Embrace the energy transition.” I find myself also recalling the words of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

I greatly enjoyed the plenary session by Dawood Al-Dawood of Saudi Aramco, especially his statement, “Let’s not underestimate human emotions.” The role they play in causing accidents, in making decisions, in how we engage with one another and those outside our industry were reinforced in the closing remarks by Waddah Ghanem of ENOC, who exhorted us as engineers and scientists to appreciate the importance of relevant theories in the field of social science and even contribute to their growth.

Our industry is here to stay, but we recognize that it will not look the same in 10 years. Whether because of digitization or responses to energy-transition scenarios, the industry will evolve. The practices we saw showcased in Abu Dhabi illustrate the resilience and the unflagging commitment of the thousands of experts who advise decision makers at all levels and advance the industry’s performance—not to mention its capacity to innovate and challenge itself to sustain continuous improvements.

Thank you to the dozens of individuals who helped build the 2018 HSE conference and to the SPE staff members who made it all happen so seamlessly.

I would like to encourage all SPE members to engage in the HSE and Sustainability dialogue at HSE conferences, workshops, and webinars but also at technical events hosting HSE tracks such as ATCE, OTC, Offshore Europe, ADIPEC, and SPE regional conferences. These venues offer great opportunities to engage with the experts in the service of complete integration of practices that protect and add value to your business.

Learn more about the HSE and sustainability work enabled by SPE on, where you can find a calendar of workshops and webinars, PetroTalks, papers, interviews, and more. If you would like to speak or recommend excellent speakers, please contact us at Don’t miss the SPE workshop “Enhancing HSE Performance for Drilling Operations” on 14–15 August in The Woodlands, Texas. ( committee.html) and the HSE track at ATCE including two special sessions:  “Safety: Getting to Zero” and “Sustainability: Measuring what Matters.

HSE Conference Marks a Tipping Point for the Industry

Johana Dunlop, SPE HSE Technical Director

01 June 2018

Volume: 70 | Issue: 6

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