At the Super Bowl of Energy, the Big Game Is on the Sidelines

Behind the scenes with oil company CEOs and Cabinet secretaries at the Texas-sized energy conference in Houston.

HOUSTON—Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz gave two sets of remarks on Wednesday night at a big energy conference here.

The first, a panel discussion with his counterparts from Mexico and Canada, was open to journalists and all attendees at the annual IHS CERAWeek gathering. The second, a conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning energy historian and CERA founder Daniel Yergin, was at a closed-door dinner with energy-industry officials and experts.

Attendees were urged to keep it off the record, but several guests said Moniz broached the nuclear talks with Iran (in which he has been a key player); crude-oil export policy; emerging technologies like small modular nuclear reactors and 3-D printing; energy efficiency; and more.

The events just a few hours apart at the upscale Hilton Americas-Houston highlight the concentric circles of access and exclusivity at the annual conference, where roughly 2,500 attendees from 50-plus nations pay as much as $7,750 per head. Major energy companies, banks, trade groups, and others pay undisclosed sums for "partnership" opportunities. Milling about are around 240 reporters, according to organizers. CNBC set up a mini-studio in the hotel for interviews.

The Obama administration uses the week to make its case before industries, on their turf, that are wary and sometimes downright hostile to White House energy and climate policies. Along with Moniz, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, and State Department climate-change envoy Todd Stern all attended.

McCarthy promoted EPA's carbon-emissions rules for power plants, while Jewell met with a group of CEOs from independent oil companies in addition to giving a speech and press conference.

Yergin, chatting with a couple of reporters Wednesday night after the dinner with Moniz, described CERAWeek as "multiple conferences going on at the same time," and likened it to an energy-specific version of the World Economic Forum in Davos.

There's the outward-facing part of the conference, with a bonanza of serious—and mostly industry-centric—sessions on the future of global energy, unfolding this year as the oil-price collapse has put the industry on tougher footing.

But not all of the action is in the Texas-sized ballrooms. There is an exclusive "partner and member lounge," where a police guard restricts access, and there are closed-door briefings aplenty given by experts at IHS CERA.

Evenings bring private, invite-only receptions by companies that help sponsor the conference. On Tuesday night, for instance, guests at the reception in ConocoPhillips's "hospitality suite" munched on pulled beef short ribs on mascarpone.

Nearby, the suite of Argentinian energy giant YPF had its own invite-only reception with a selection of home-country wines. (It's not as if the media starves either; a lunch spread for reporters on Wednesday included charbroiled flank steak and rotisserie chicken.)

Monday, Senate Energy Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski drew plenty of coverage when she announced that she's finally pressing ahead with her long-planned bill to lift restrictions on crude-oil exports. Also Monday, she and her fellow Alaska Republican, Sen. Dan Sullivan, discussed a planned Alaska gas-export project with officials from BP, Exxon, and ConocoPhillips.

Moniz met with government energy officials from the U.K., Ukraine, and Australia, as well as with his Canadian and Mexican counterparts.

The Canadian government has officials here seeking to drum up more business in that nation's oil-and-gas sector. "This is the place to do it," Greg Rickford, Canada's natural resources minister, told reporters. He's making the case for investment in Canada onstage, but also in meetings including a "roundtable" he's doing with "key CEOs" here Thursday.

The many pieces of the conference that are open to all make it a huge draw too. CEOs of Exxon, BP, Statoil, Total, and other huge oil-and-gas producers, and the chiefs of pipeline giant Enbridge, the LNG company Cheniere, and the big coal company Peabody, to name just a few, all took the stage.

One attendee and former CERA official says the conference is unusual in that both the speakers and the side-meetings are an equal draw.

"It is almost unique in that there are a lot of [other] events that people come to for the networking and the sessions are almost on the side, others where people just go for the content. This is one where people come for both. It's rare that you don't come away from a session having learned something new," said David Hobbs, head of researchers at Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center, and a former CERA official.

As for Yergin, he embraces the atmosphere created in Houston.

"People tell me that this conference will save them six to eight weeks of travel," he said. "They don't have to fly across many time zones to meet people.

"I assume that here people are certainly talking about business relations," he added. "It is not part of what the conference does, but the conference is a venue, a location for that."