Volume: 2 | Issue: 6

Charting a Course for the Changing Needs of Facilities Engineers

Once upon a time, oil and gas production facilities were small, simple, similar, and inexpensive. Back in those times, SPE was focused mainly on the reservoir. 

Things have changed dramatically. There has never been a better time to be a facilities engineer.

Deepwater facilities are now massive and cost billions of dollars. Design and execution extends over several years (even without recycling) and requires the efforts of hundreds of people, often working on four or more continents. Very large shale gas and oil projects also require significant facilities and infrastructure investment, along with tar sands, liquefied natural gas, Arctic projects, and subsea processing—the list goes on.

Not only are our projects technically challenging; they are also socially challenging. Interfaces with partners, governments, nongovernmental organizations, local communities, vendors, and engineering contractors make our projects more difficult to manage—and more interesting than in any other industry. And they are mostly on fast-track schedules.

At the conclusion of the 2013 SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition (ATCE), I succeeded John Walsh as the technical director of projects, facilities, and construction (PFC). I am writing this column to introduce myself and to share my vision for the growth of PFC over the next 3 years.

I hold a chemical engineering degree from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (38 years ago). My long-term background is topsides process/facilities design. I am the systems engineering manager at Gibson Applied Technology and Engineering (GATE) in Houston. Over the past 15 years, my work has mainly involved deepwater developments and has been focused on managing the interfaces between topsides and other disciplines. Currently, most of my work involves initial startup planning. I have a special professional interest in the study of decision theory and in its application to improve project execution.

When I joined SPE 15 years ago, the society had little to offer to facilities engineers. That has changed dramatically, thanks to the efforts of previous PFC technical directors Ken Arnold, Paul Jones, John Walsh, and many other volunteers. Our discipline now has:

  • A dedicated magazine (Oil and Gas Facilities)
  • An expanded presence at ATCE (four technical sections and a panel discussion dinner are planned for 2014)
  • A growing number of workshops and webinars (
  • Three SPE technical sections—Separations Technology, Water Handling and Management, and Flow Assurance (the Flow Assurance technical section will be live effective 1 January 2014)
  • SPE Connect—provides an online community to meet, collaborate, discuss specific technical challenges and resolutions, or share your experience and knowledge with other SPE members worldwide (
  • The newly launched PetroWiki (

SPE has come a long way toward addressing the needs of project and construction engineers, but there is still a long way to go when considering the following:

  • Many of our projects fail. There are many reasons for this, including the technical and social challenges described above. We must do better.
  • I believe that we are not training young facilities engineers as well as my generation was trained. We must do better.
  • We have made remarkable strides in personnel safety, but not as much in process safety. We must do better.
  • Our projects are routinely challenged by people in the communities in which we operate. We must do a better job of community engagement.

In the autumn of my career, I want to make a difference. My main goal as PFC technical director will be to improve the services that SPE offers to PFC engineers and to make the people who design, build, and operate production facilities feel at home in SPE. In this way, I hope that we can improve the level of service that we provide to the industry.

One of my priorities will be to expand the content that makes this magazine directly applicable to the daily lives of project engineers and managers. Look for additional design content in the magazine beginning early next year. 

I encourage you to read the Culture Matters column in this magazine. Long ago, I realized that engineering is as much art as it is math. Published in each bimonthly issue, the column addresses the social, psychological, and cognitive factors that make engineering fascinating. We continue to seek provocative articles for the column.

The 2014 ATCE will be held in Amsterdam in October. In recent years, the PFC-related content has grown. The Call for Papers deadline for submission of paper proposals is 27 January. Help us put on a good show by proposing an interesting paper. And, of course, please consider attending.

To engage with SPE members, I encourage you to participate in discussions on LinkedIn and SPE Connect.

Over the next 3 years, I will share other thoughts with you from time to time.

Howard Duhon is the systems engineering manager at GATE and the SPE technical director of Projects, Facilities, and Construction. He is a member of the Editorial Board of Oil and Gas Facilities.

He can be reached at



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