When and wherever there is a need to inform and educate oil and gas professionals on the intricacies and latest developments in the industry, you will probably find B.J. Lowe and his Houston-based staff of Clarion Technical Conferences.
What was originally a business operation mostly focused on promoting pigging – one of his first and most important clients is still the Pigging Products & Services Association whose annual conference Clarion sponsors every February in Houston – has blossomed into a worldwide conference and training specialist that delves into issues such as risk management, pipeline integrity, updated safety regulations, offshore pipelines and more. He also finds the time to publish technical books and periodicals of specific interest for the pipeline business.
Wherever there is a need for more information, Lowe and his staff will often be there. Not bad for a native Yankee whose career plans hardly envisioned pipelines. But then, this has always been an industry that embraces talent, ambition and the ability to work with others.
In this interview, conducted as Lowe was en route to a conference in Berlin, the affable conference magnate discusses his career and the industry that has become an integral part of his life.
P&GJ: Where did you grow up and what were some of your interests?
Lowe: I grew up on the south shore of Long Island, 30 miles from Manhattan. My friends and I spent a lot of time in the ocean surfing (or trying to) and swimming. Music has always been a keen interest and at one time you could say I was pretty decent at playing the piano.
P&GJ: How did you wind up in the energy industry, and was it your original choice for a career?
Lowe: I’d always figured on a career in publishing, although I had no specific idea about which type of publishing I’d want to be involved in. After moving to Houston in 1970 and as an undergrad at the University of Houston, I envisioned working at Gulf Publishing Company. They published (and still publish) magazines and books for the oil and gas industry, which seemed to me a good business to be in, given the boom at that time. They had a great Spanish-style building on Allen Parkway in Houston that I passed on my way to class every day. I went in for an interview. They hired me even before I had graduated.
P&GJ: When did you work at Gulf Publishing and what were your primary jobs there?
Lowe: I worked in various editorial capacities in Gulf’s Book Publishing Division from 1972 to 1997 and was named editor-in-chief in 1979. We published reference books for engineers in all sectors of the oil and gas industry. One of them was the Pipeline Rules of Thumb Handbook, the first edition of which I produced with Don Lambert, editor of Gulf’s Pipeline Industry magazine at the time. Several years later we brought in Ed McAllister to oversee further editions. Its lifetime sales are more than 100,000 copies.
P&GJ: Why did you decide to go into business for yourself and start Clarion Conferences?
Lowe: In the mid-1980s, I met John Tiratsoo of Scientific Surveys and developed a great working relationship with him in the conference business. After many years in book publishing, I decided conferences represented a good opportunity. My wife, Pam, and I agreed on the plan. She was fully supportive, as she has always been: “The Eagle has landed,” she said, reminding me of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. Equally important, Pam was highly successful in commercial real estate, and she wanted me to experience the “flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” feeling that comes with self-employment. Pam’s own success was as much a part of it as anything I did. I left Gulf on friendly terms and founded Clarion in June 1997.
P&GJ: What was your business strategy when you began Clarion, and how often did you have to revise it through the years?
Lowe: The plan was to develop technical events related to pipelines and subsea and to focus on building a brand recognized for the highest quality. The pipeline sector had proved to be particularly responsive, and there seemed to be more important, yet unaddressed issues than in other sectors. Regulations were evolving, driving a need for information, services and new technologies. We also had the early benefit of great advice and support from several pipeline-integrity experts, particularly Gary Smith of Inline Services and Jim Cordell, who had recently retired from T.D. Williamson.
I also came to see training and education (courses) to be just as important as information (conferences), so we set ourselves to developing a series of courses, led by world-class experts, who would address all the component knowledge and technology related to pipeline engineering and integrity management. Today, we devote equal attention and resources to both activities.
P&GJ: What were some of the topics explored during the early conferences, and when did the focus begin turning toward pigging and pipeline integrity?
Lowe: In addition to Pipeline Pigging & Inspection our early offerings included conference series on Deepwater Pipeline Technology, Pipeline Operator Qualification, Floating Production Systems and Process Plant Reliability. Again, we saw the pipeline inspection and integrity market growing and ripening in its need for information about new technology, regulatory compliance, and best practices and decided in 2003 to focus on it exclusively.
P&GJ: Could you ever have foreseen the growth of the pipeline inspection business into what it is today?
Lowe: No. I saw steady growth, but nothing like the arc of the last 10 years.
P&GJ: How have the conferences evolved through the years in terms of topics, educational courses and attendees?
Lowe: The feedback from our clients directed our growth. Our earlier pipeline-related conferences focused almost entirely on pigging and inline inspection (ILI). As the tools, technologies and methods have evolved, we are covering all the other elements of asset integrity management: engineering assessment, risk management, data management, mapping and locating, mechanical damage, and “unpiggable” or difficult-to-inspect systems.
The courses have followed a similar pattern. We began with our Pigging & ILI course and added Defect Assessment, Risk Management, and 17 other courses to the point where we are now closing in on more specialized and problematic sub-topics, as with our new course on Managing Cracks and Seam-Weld Anomalies. Although the topics and degree of specialization have changed, the audience has not. We have always aimed our courses and conferences at engineers, and the typical people we see are engineering managers, project managers, integrity team leaders, maintenance specialists.
P&GJ: How many conferences does Clarion do annually and where are they held?
Lowe: We do two to three conferences per year. PPIM in Houston each February, then we alternate these biennial events: the Unpiggable Pipeline Solutions Forum, Houston; Integrity, Repair & Rehabilitation: Fixing Pipeline Problems, Berlin; Pipeline Operations & Management Middle East, Bahrain; the International Pipeline Technology Conference, Ostend (quadrennially with Rudi Denys, University of Ghent, retired). A new conference on aging pipelines will be introduced in 2015, also in Ostend. In addition, we offer 20 different courses over 10 weeks each year in Houston, Calgary, Aberdeen and Newcastle.
P&GJ: Do you find the same level of interest in the inspection and pipeline integrity management in other regions of the world, or is it lagging?
Lowe: It depends on the regulatory regime to some extent. With that said, in many developing countries, even where the regulatory climate may be more liberal, we are seeing keen interest among forward-looking companies who see these integrity management measures as simply best practices for protecting their assets, which of course they are.
P&GJ: What have you learned about the people in this business through the years, and their devotion to safety?
Lowe: Personnel safety has long been a priority in the pipeline industry, but as the infrastructure has aged and serious incidents have proliferated, the safety of the public at large has become a paramount concern. Industry groups such as API, INGAA, ASME and PRCI have done a lot of good work developing standards, recommended practices and guidance that have elevated industry performance in this respect.
They, and the industry itself, have also funded research that has led to massive improvements in tools and techniques for condition assessment and risk evaluation. The best people in this business know that exploiting these tools and the associated expense of doing so, is now a matter of sound business practice as much as it is a matter of public responsibility.
P&GJ: Do you think there was a particular event or series of events that brought pipeline integrity into the forefront of discussion?
Lowe: Yes: Carlsbad, New Mexico, Bellingham, Washington, San Bruno, California, Kalamazoo River, Michigan.
P&GJ: What do you think have been the biggest technological improvements during the past 25 years, and what do you expect will be the next breakthrough regarding inspection capabilities?
Lowe: The increasing ability to obtain super-high-quality inspection results, the further ability to inspect pipelines that were previously considered uninspectable, and the storage and software developments that have allowed these results to be captured, stored and interpreted with incredible accuracy. Another big step forward has been the evolution of risk-management thinking and methods that leverage these technologies so that the maximum benefit is obtained in terms of protecting the public and the assets.
I think visualization will be the next breakthrough. We are swimming in data already; the challenge is translating it into decisions and actions. Software is evolving to render inspection and engineering data in ways that allow us to more readily see and understand phenomena and patterns, and thus discover or predict problems. Technologies for mapping, control systems, and right-of-way surveillance to address mechanical damage and leaks are evolving alongside the inspection technologies. My view is we will arrive at a point where an entire pipeline system can be “seen” and monitored in real time via the convergence of these data-gathering, processing and visualization advances.