Ten years ago I guess you could call yourself a Texan if you hadn’t been to the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston, but an easy conversance with the OTC and its ways certainly bolstered your credentials. Back then the OTC was, like riding a horse or drinking a beer in a honky-tonk, one of the defining experiences of the old Texas. The conference is still the largest gathering of oil patch folks in the world, but this year’s OTC, with just 35,000 people attending, was a mere shadow of the 1982 conference, which had 108,000 attendees and 2,500 company exhibitors. That was the last year that Texas seemed in control of both its own destiny and that of the world. The price of oil was supposed to rise forever, and no one knew how to find oil and pump oil and transport oil and refine oil and, for that matter, consume oil like Texans did.
The excesses of the Texas character dominated the 1982 conference. The proper way for any self-respecting oil executive to arrive was by helicopter, landing at one of the several helipads marked out on the Astrodome parking lot. During the day, models with large breasts and tiny skirts stood smiling by heavy pieces of industrial equipment in the exhibition hall. Some booths featured chorus lines or voluptuous shoeshine girls. By late afternoon the parties started. Every hotel in town, particularly the Shamrock, became a collection of hospitality suites. By the giant Shamrock pool, there were luaus and barbecues and open bars. In the middle of the revelry, ﬂoodlights came on, the covers were torn off a large mass that had been ﬂoating in the pool, and suddenly, with a roar of engines, a speedboat was pulling winsome and acrobatic water-skiers around and around. But that was the last debauch. The price of oil collapsed, and the next year, 1983, attendance fell by almost half, to 58,000. By 1987 it had fallen by more than half again, to just under 26,000.
As attendance at the OTC waned, the excesses disappeared and the tone of the conference became serious in the extreme. It remains so today. The Shamrock has been razed; hospitality suites are almost extinct; and despite a determined and exhaustive investigation,