Oral-History:Trey Shaffer


About the Interviewee

Trey Shaffer

Trey Shaffer a Senior Partner with ERM based in Houston, Texas, USA. He is ERM’s Global Upstream Oil & Gas Sector Leader. He helps clients with a broad range of sustainability, environmental and safety challenges. Prior to joining ERM in 2003, Trey was the Director of Downstream Services for Boots & Coots International Well Control.

In 2014, Trey was elected to the SPE International Board of Directors as the HSSE-SR Technical Director. In 2010, he was recognized by the SPE Gulf Coast Section and received the Award for Distinguished Contribution to Petroleum Engineering in the area of HSSE-SR. He is the co-chair of the SPE International 2016 HSSE-SR Conference which will take place from 11 April 2016 to 13 April 2016 in Stavanger, Norway. Trey supports numerous SPE activities globally.

He earned a Bachelor of Environmental Design degree from Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas in 1987. He lives in Texas with his wife and three daughters.

Further Reading

Access additional oral histories from members and award recipients of the AIME Member Societies here: AIME Oral Histories

About the Interview

Trey Shaffer: An interview conducted by Amy Esdorn for the Society of Petroleum Engineers, September 30, 2015.

Interview SPEOH000135 at the Society of Petroleum Engineers History Archive.

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Audio File
MP3 Audio


DATE: September 30, 2015
PLACE: Houston, Texas


My name is Amy Esdorn, and I’m here at the Society of Petroleum Engineers Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas. Today is September 30th, 2015 and I’m speaking with Trey Shaffer. Trey, thank you for coming and interviewing with us today.


Well, thank you for having me.


Great. Well, let’s begin. My first question for you is: how did you get involved in the industry, and what was your first job?


Well, I think I have an interesting story. I began my academic career studying architecture, and when I graduated with my degree in architecture in about 1987, we had a situation where the savings and loan crisis was in full swing. And there were absolutely no jobs for architects unless you wanted to work in Atlanta, supporting the construction related to the Olympics, or if you wanted to move to Washington DC. And a lot of my peers moved to those places. In my case, I -- and as many kids are doing today, you think about how can you prolong your academic career or do something to keep you occupied until the job market recovers. In my case, I wanted to do something for society, and I ended up taking a volunteer position, effectively, with an organization called The Appalachia Service Project in Tennessee. And I actually went to -- it was actually in Jonesville, Virginia at that kind of tri-state area. I worked for a year building houses for low-income families. So that was my occupation until I decided to become engaged, and my wife now, of many years, accepted. And my father-in-law actually wrote me a letter and said, “You need to get a real job,” and so that brought me back to Texas, and I began to look for a job. And there were still no jobs. [00:02:00] I still remember to this day that I was interviewing with a small architectural firm who actually offered me a job to do construction details as a draftsman, and I walked out of that interview thinking, “Wow. I just got a job offer.” But then I looked across the parking lot. It was sort of one of those L-shaped strip malls, and I looked across the parking lot and the Taco Bell at the corner was actually offering an hourly wage that was equivalent to the wage I was just offered—and they had health benefits and management potential and some vacation opportunities that I wasn’t being offered. So I thought, “I’ve got to come up with another plan.”

What I did was I did a skills assessment, like kids are doing today. I actually thought that I could be a good estimator. A lot of the skills that an architect learns are related to putting designs on paper, and we have kind of a multidisciplinary look at construction projects. So, sure enough, I ended up finding a job with a small engineering company, and they actually supported the architectural industry through construction materials testing and some other types of work. So I thought, “This is perfect. I’ll support the architectural industry while I’m figuring out what I really want to do with my career.” But as it turns out, their environmental group, which was brand new, they did quite a bit of geotechnical work as well. And who knew that when you drilled a hole in the ground, you might eventually come across contamination, which is what happened? So they had the perfect asset base to begin doing subsurface investigations and other types of activity that are actually in the environmental realm. One thing led to another, and within a few weeks, I found myself kind of working with that group. I began putting the other presentations and doing, organizing essentially lectures for the real estate industry because all of the real estate that was going through the savings and loan crisis was there were asbestos issues, there were lead issues, PCB issues. All these things were environmental issues. [00:04:00] Basically, my academic background brought me into an engineering company that was working heavily in the space of dealing with contaminated sites and impacted buildings. That’s where I began. And one thing led to another, and eventually, I became associated with an emergency response company and then I worked for another emergency response company that became acquired by Boots and Coots. That’s how I actually entered the oil and gas industry was through my work at Boots and Coots. And I eventually became the Director of Downstream Services for Boots and Coots running a very large group of emergency response professionals that dealt with “downstream.” For Boots and Coots, “downstream” basically meant everything that wasn’t inside the wellbore. Boots and Coots developed, worked in obviously the emergency response business, responding to well blowouts, and I supported that activity with my team, dealing with oil on the ground, industrial hygiene, safety, those sorts of activities. I did that for many years until I eventually joined my current firm, Environmental Resources Management, and that was 12 years ago and I’ve been working, supporting the oil and gas industry for many years now. But that’s how I got there.


That’s great. Who would have thought from architecture to oil and gas? That’s a great story.


It just goes to show you that what you study in school is just sort of… it’s not the rule. You don’t have to become what you study in school. In fact, the job market may not provide the opportunities that you need when you graduate. I think with a little bit of innovation, creativity, and perseverance, you can do anything.


[00:06:00] You work primarily in health, safety, security, the environment, and social responsibility. Go ahead and just tell me a little bit about that and how that’s been during your career.


Well, it’s interesting. I began -- actually, if you think about it, I was just reflecting on this a few days ago. Remember, in 1991, we had the Gulf War. And you remember all the environmental incidents that occurred as a result of putting all those wells on fire. Boots and Coots was heavily involved in that response activity. But really, we’ve seen a massive transformation of our industry over the last 25 to 30 years, and I think now we’re beginning to look at things in a much more holistic way. I think sustainability and the way that we’re beginning to think about sustainability is shifting the way we think about health, safety, environment, security, and social responsibility. These things are not independent things, although most professionals that work in this field are specialists and they tend to focus on one area. But we’re seeing more multi-disciplinary work, more collaboration, even beyond the HSE discipline into engineering and the other elements of the industry. I think we’re starting to look at sustainability sort of as an umbrella under which all of these elements are hanging. I kind of think of it like they’re hanging off the ribs of the umbrella, but they’re not independent anymore. They’re all connected. And if you look at examples of how this is occurring, you think about the Macondo incident—that was a tragic event in the Gulf of Mexico—and we have seen a safety incident in that blowout, basically, resulted in a massive environmental consequence. These things are not independent. You can’t just deal with safety; you have to deal with everything. [00:08:00] I think sustainability is helping us to get a better handle on how we view those issues and start to work collaboratively across all of these disciplines to solve problems.


Is there any particular sort of landmark in HSSE-SR that you have seen in your career that you feel -- clearly, they all make rather big impact in the industry, but has there been anything that you’ve seen that you think has made a particular impact or has struck you as something that kind of went above and beyond? Or was particularly interesting?


We’re faced right now with the situation where climate change is -- you see it in the news, especially in parts of the world that are well educated and have wealth. So, for example, in Western Europe, climate change is a big issue and is viewed by many people living there as a huge issue. The further away you get from Western Europe, the less important it becomes. It’s not to say that climate change is not an issue to everyone. It is, but people’s perception of the importance is different based on your education, based on your income levels. And I think it does represent a big issue that the oil and gas industry needs to address. We’re starting to get our arms around it. In the beginning, there were lots of debates about is the science right, is the science inaccurate, is it right. But I think we’re beyond that now, and we’re really looking at how can we do our part to contribute to society’s need to reduce carbon emissions. And we have a big solution within the oil and gas industry, and that’s to provide more natural gas, which is lower carbon or a low carbon solution to providing power, which is important to everyone in the world. [00:10:00] I think we’re starting to get our arms around that. We have ways to go, but we need to get away from the debate of “is the science real or is it not real?” and look at the ways that we can contribute. For me, this is a big opportunity for the industry. We can make a difference, and we should be playing our part.


That’s great. Okay, so my next question for you is do you remember a mistake that you made in your career? What did you learn from it? How did you bounce back?


Well, I had a situation -- as you might imagine, if you’re leading a team of people—and at Boots and Coots I was leading a very large team of people—that type of work is hazardous. It’s very hazardous. And we always treated safety with utmost importance. We spent a lot of time planning the work that we did and we spent a lot of time training our people. We spent a lot of resources to make sure that our people had the best equipment possible to protect themselves in the hazardous environments where they were working. And even with all that preparation, all that work, you still have things that you don’t always see. It’s one of the things that makes leadership challenging, and it’s one of the things that makes being safe every day challenging.

We had a situation where one of our folks -- well, we had a crew arrive on a site where we were going to clean out a tank, and we had made all the preparations. It had been going on for several days, and when the crew arrived, they realized that they left an important piece of equipment back at the shop, so they sent one of our team back to the shop. They begin to set up for the day. They laid out their work area, and they noticed quickly -- it was an unusual day because the fog was so thick at the work site. [00:12:00] It was almost like a fog dome. If you would have seen it, it was one of the things we could not see very far but you could see the fog. This fog really captured the vapors that were being emitted from the tank as we were beginning to prepare, and we noticed that the vacuum truck that we had positioned near the work site was beginning to -- the engine was racing. So what was happening is the vapors were coming into the engine, and it was racing. So we basically -- it’s a situation where the engine will just run on its own, so you can’t use a key to turn it off. So they popped the clutch and began to turn off all the equipment and move the equipment away. Eventually, our team member who had gone to the shop came back, and he drove up to the area where it appeared to be the work area, unaware of what was going on, and stepped out of his vehicle. He, of course, had an F350 truck and hot engine, stepped out. It ignited a flash fire.

Fortunately, he was wearing his work clothing, which was full Nomex and work boots. However, he hadn’t put on his hard hat or his work gloves, so he was exposed to a flash fire at his head and hands. And really, that was a very difficult situation. He survived, but of course, these types of injuries can be lifelong injuries. You have your micro -- let’s say detailed capabilities in your hands that get damage when those muscles are damaged. Your eyelids, tears, all sorts of physical injuries occur. And we had to go through an OSHA investigation. We learned a lot, but we learned a lot at the expense of a valuable contributor to our team. [00:14:00] So for me, safety was always important, but safety became even more important. And there are things that you cannot compromise on, you cannot be tolerant of, and anything related to getting in the way of safety is just unacceptable. Fortunately, that was our conduct to begin with, but it was reinforced significantly through this incident. And it was tragic.

I’ve remembered that as a -- it’s a strong memory in it. It’s difficult to tell you the story without weeping. So that would be one of the mistakes. Despite the preparation that we made, despite all the work that we had done to be prepared for the project and for the work, this happened. It was tragic.


Yes, in these sorts of instances, it feels like maybe just there are blind spots that you just don’t see. You can’t see them sometimes, and preparing for them is very difficult.


What we learned was how to control the work area. So we changed our procedures. We wrote a new protocol, and we learned from that incident and we began to control the work area, so we never had an incident like this occur again.


That’s a good outcome then.

Well, my last question for you is how has being an SPE member affected your career.


When I was a student at a drafting board, drawing my designs and dreaming of becoming a famous architect, I never imagined that I would be a member of the SPE International Board of Directors. For me, SPE is about working with colleagues. I have a great profession, a great discipline, and it’s very collegial. [00:16:00] We work together. There’s not much proprietary around health, safety, environment, and social responsibility. We share information, and we work together. For me, I know that I’m making a difference because I really believe that what we’re doing today, the ways that we’re collaborating with our industry, the opportunities we’re given for collaboration, the things we’re learning, the things we’re sharing, all those are going to add to the body of knowledge that’s going to make our industry even better, and I like being part of that.

Helge Haldorsen, who’s the current president of SPE, speaks often about the work that we do and how it lifts people out of poverty and how when people have access to energy, that they can grow, they can develop and they can recognize their potential. I really believe that, and I believe I’m part of that, and I believe SPE enables me to do that and I can make a big difference across a lot of people. I’m having a lot fun doing it as well. Thankfully, my employer views this as a core part of our sustainability effort, basically, to bring thought leadership to the industry, and they’re very supportive of my activity, so I’m very fortunate that I have an opportunity through SPE and also that my employer is very tolerant and very encouraging with my activity.


That’s great. So, just kind of along those lines, just -- that was my last question, but I do have one more question for you, and that is what has been the most rewarding or exciting part of working in the industry for you.


Well, I know that the work that we do makes a difference. Not only are we making a difference within our industry, but actually, I do have a strong passion for the environment, for making sure that everybody works safely, making sure that we’re being socially responsible. [00:18:00] I think just being able to be participant in this industry and then in this profession, it’s amazingly rewarding, so I feel privileged to be able to have this opportunity.


Great. Well, thank you so much for coming in and being a part of this interview.


Thank you.