Louisiana Summers with his Grandparents, Upstream E&P and Midstream Pipelines, and Water Management Innovation: The Incredible Life of John Durand, Part One

Thank you to our sponsor, Appian for supporting this Perspective article.

In Episode 22 of the Oil and Gas Elevate Podcast, hosts Sean McCoy and Eric Johnson interviewed John Durand, President and Chief Sustainability Officer at XRI. In this article, OGGN contributing writer Stephen Forrester got a chance to talk with John about his life and career. In Part I, John talks about the influence of his parents and grandparents growing up in Louisiana, his work with Union Pacific Resources and helping develop pipeline restructuring regulation, and time with Williams Energy siting natural gas-fired power generation project

Growing up in Lafayette, Louisiana, John Durand understood the work ethic it took to be successful from an early age. “Other than his military service as a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Air Force, my dad was a petroleum geologist for his entire working life, and my mom was involved in real estate for almost three decades,” he explains. “So, entrepreneurial, hard-working parents were just a part of my upbringing. I give my mom credit for providing me an acute understanding at a fairly early age the skills and nuances of negotiation and relationship-building, having observed and listened to her work deals over the phone for many years.” After the Air Force, John’s dad started his career with an energy major but branched out shortly thereafter, starting what would end up as a lifelong consultancy. Because of the nature of his dad’s work, John found himself surrounded by the oil and gas industry, and it fascinated him.

“It’s all I ever knew,” he says. “I was an only child for the first 8½ years of my life until my brother was born; so, hanging around my mom, dad, grandparents, and their contemporaries was a key part of my upbringing, with each influencing me in different ways. Being able to sit there and watch my dad create countless subsurface and contour maps—long before the advent of 3-D and 4-D seismic—always determinedly looking to find energy resources in the onshore and shallow offshore of southern Louisiana gave me a chance to learn a lot early in my life. Remember, that was the era when only one of 11 wells drilled was considered commercially successful; much different than the manufacturing business of today’s shale resource play development.”

John Durand

John says that even then, much of the country didn’t understand the importance of hydrocarbon exploration and development, but his proximity to it provided clarity that many others never find. It wasn’t just his dad’s work or his parents’ entrepreneurial bent that shaped John, however. “Two people who were just as instrumental in my life were my maternal grandparents,” he says. “My grandmother was a gifted artist and musician who taught piano most of her adult life and served as the pianist and organist at their church for more than 50 years. Her kindness, compassion, talents, and commitment to serving and helping others made her a pillar in the community.”

John’s grandfather was an equally important figure. “My grandfather chose education and coaching as his vocation, and for 38 of his 42 years in education, he was principal of a school in the small town of Lake Arthur, Louisiana, which had a population of about 1,800 people,” John says. “During his tenure, he wore multiple hats, serving at any given time as the head football, basketball, and track coach. I cannot even begin to count the life lessons learned from him, both directly and indirectly. He was a larger-than-life figure to me both from the standpoint of his physical 6’4” stature, as well as my observations of him as a long-serving and respected community leader. Seeing the positive influence he had on people really stuck with me. The way he carried himself and the responsibility he bore in his role—everything about him spoke to ethics, integrity, professionalism, and most importantly, the idea of always giving back, which was just second nature to him.”

John’s grandparents, Bob & Nona Doland
John’s grandparents, Bob and Nona Doland

Spending many of his childhood summers with his grandparents, who lived near the lake and across from a ballpark, John got involved in sports, with his grandfather acting as his personal coach. What his grandfather gave him, however, was more than just tips on how to hit a baseball, throw a football, or shoot a jump shot—it was life coaching, moments of profound insight offered here and there, small wisdoms about how to live better, be better. “He showed me how to treat people with respect,” John says. “He showed me how to be a mentor to others, sometimes without even having to say it.” On a daily basis, it was commonplace for people from all walks of life to stop by his grandparent’s home and come upon John and his grandfather sitting on the front porch in the balmy Louisiana heat. Most of those who stopped to visit were former students who just wanted to come up and say hello, sharing stories of their interactions and experiences growing up with John’s grandfather as a major influence and role model in each of their lives. John recalls that, even as a young boy, he could see and hear the reverence and gratitude of those who would reminisce with his grandfather. In a small, close-knit community like theirs, the opportunity was real for a passionate person to make a tangible impact, and John’s grandfather did that with everyone who crossed his path. “He was a true disciplinarian but cared about each and every one of his students,” John recalls. “Moreover, he just loved and cared about people, and that made a real impact on me. Those memories still stick with and influence me to this day.”

“Sometimes, you don’t realize the life lessons you’re being taught growing up and the impact they’ll have on you until much later.”

At that point in time, Louisiana was a boom-or-bust state much in the same vein of Texas, its fate and that of its inhabitants inextricably bound to the oil and gas market and the agriculture industry. John recognized the value of people like his grandfather, those who were able to contribute meaningfully to enrich others’ lives and wanted to become like him. Though John was interested in oil and gas due to his dad’s work, proximity didn’t get him involved initially. Instead, the athletic young John thought there might be a future for himself in the sports world. “I played every sport imaginable, and some of my fondest memories are of playing tennis with my dad,” John recalls. “My dad, who was an excellent golfer, decided to give up golf in his late 30s and learn to start playing tennis. My dad explained his reason for the switch was two-fold. One, he believed that the health benefits of tennis over golf were greater and, secondly, he predicted that tennis was the sport he would enjoy playing more as he got older.”

His dad was right, as he ended up playing competitively until he was 70 years old. John continues the story: “Sometimes, we would play doubles tournaments together—I’d be the youngest person on the court, and he’d be the oldest. He had these cat-like reflexes at the net and could chase down just about anything from the backcourt. I remember being so astounded at his athleticism despite his age, and we shared great camaraderie as both playing partners and father and son. Even setting the example he did from a physical fitness standpoint was something I took with me. Sometimes, you don’t realize the life lessons you’re being taught growing up and the impact they’ll have on you until much later.”

Though he loved playing, professional sports weren’t John’s path. Going to college at the University of Louisiana and getting a Bachelor of Science degree in petroleum land management with a minor in geology, John knew that he’d somehow find his way following in his dad’s footsteps to the energy industry. “I told my dad that though I was fascinated by geology, I just didn’t think I was cut out to see in three dimensions like he did,” John says. “My dad understood; he knew I had a more commercial bent, that I liked working with people, building relationships, and doing business.” Moving to Dallas in 1986, John worked his way through night school and received his MBA and then started a career with Union Pacific Resources.

During the 9 years John spent with Union Pacific, it was one of the largest independent oil and gas companies in the United States and the nation’s leading driller. In 1995, a prolific horizontal drilling program saw the company drilling its one-thousandth well in the Austin Chalk, an arching strip across Texas and Louisiana known for its excellent porosity and being naturally fractured. In the early days of the Austin Chalk and Union Pacific Resources’ campaigns in Fayette County, the wells became a proving ground for new solutions in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. John remembers this time in the upstream sector with fondness, remarking that it was this period that solidified for him the value and importance of the E&P sector. “The industry was seeing some of the first large-scale horizontal development, and it was done primarily by Union Pacific,” he says. “We were a leader in the Austin Chalk, and I can remember each of our milestone events in terms of number of wells drilled and new technologies being applied; it felt like and was a trailblazing time for the company and the  industry as a whole.” During his career at Union Pacific, John was involved with the corporate development team working on mergers and acquisitions, which gave him the opportunity to put his MBA in corporate finance to good use and broaden his experience. Most of his career there, however, John was working with Union Pacific’s wholly owned affiliate, Union Pacific Fuels, where he was involved in transportation and regulatory affairs, natural gas processing and gathering, and natural gas marketing to end-use customers across the country.

“We were seeing such advancements in seismic interpretation at that time—first 3-D, and then 4-D—as well as vertical wells into high-angle horizontal kickouts. I’ve always shared that same sense of wonderment my dad had regarding how far the industry has come and the incredible benefits the industry provides society, both domestically and internationally.”

What made John’s experience that much more meaningful and impactful was a sweeping regulatory change that took place in 1992: the deregulation of the natural gas industry. FERC Order 636 came into effect in early 1992 and completely transformed the way natural gas was purchased and sold across the country. The Order created and fostered unparalleled competition in the natural gas industry by separating the merchant function from the transportation function of interstate natural gas pipelines across the United States. The change allowed consumers of natural gas to negotiate directly with multiple natural gas suppliers, including operators like Union Pacific and other marketers of natural gas, whether they were affiliated with E&P operators or not. The net result was increased competition and more efficient pricing from the wellhead to the consumer’s burner tip.

“It was an extraordinarily exciting time for the industry, which created thousands of new jobs in the energy sector, and most importantly, created transparent pricing for all consumers that exists to this day, Looking back, the changes brought about through the deregulation and unbundling of pipeline services was a watershed moment in my career. It was truly a ground-floor opportunity to be a part of and experience the creation of a fundamentally new segment of the industry, and the opportunity to see how proper regulation of an industry can benefit all stakeholders.”

The time at Union Pacific Resources also filled John with appreciation for the work that this part of the oil and gas industry does, as well the passion and innovation coming from those who work or have worked in the industry. This runs in the family: “I remember vividly talking with my dad, who spent his career looking for stratigraphic traps adjacent to underground salt domes and faulted areas in onshore Louisiana, and he was so fascinated by the technological developments we’d made as an industry,” John explains. “We were seeing such advancements in seismic interpretation at that time—first 3-D, and then 4-D—as well as vertical wells into high-angle horizontal kickouts. I’ve always shared that same sense of wonderment my dad had regarding how far the industry has come and the incredible benefits the industry provides society, both domestically and internationally. I’ve never taken for granted being a part of this incredible industry, and I’ve always believed that we really don’t give enough credit to the E&P segment of this industry for what it has done to advance our standard of living and continues to accomplish through innovation, necessity, and technological advancement.”

The Durands Vacationing in Kauai
The Durands vacationing in Kauai

When Union Pacific Resources announced in late 1998 it was planning a sale of the company, John found his way to Williams Energy, which current Houston residents will know because of the giant Williams Tower overlooking the Galleria area, the light from the rotating beacon on the top of the building cutting through the sky on clear nights. This period, John says, is when the conversion of coal plants to natural gas for independent power generation was really picking up. “Those conversions from coal to gas for electric generation was a direct result of amendments to the Clean Air Act in the 1990s, and I focused a lot at that time on power and gas,” John explains. “One of the more fascinating opportunities I had was to work in the desert southwest United States, as well as in the Midwest, on projects where we were looking to site natural gas-fired power generation projects, which we would then develop, permit, and subsequently market to independent power developers. In one case, to prove that we were finding suitable and desirable sites, we ended up building a 90-megawatt natural gas-fired electric generation peaking plant up in Indiana, and I had the good fortune to be the commercial manager over that project development and build-out.”

Though he admittedly didn’t have the technical expertise of the inner workings of building a power generation facility, John’s skill with managing people and processes helped make the project a success financially and functionally, as it came in under budget and was completed in 9 rather than the anticipated 12 months. When the plant was completed in the early 2000s, Williams started looking at other areas where the company had natural gas pipelines. Though these new sites weren’t going to result in future power plants to be developed and built by Williams itself, John and his team continued looking for opportunities to get sites packaged, permitted, and ultimately built and operated by new companies at several locations in Nevada, Arizona, and southern Utah. Following these undertakings, John turned his eyes towards renewable wind energy, doing the same thing he did with managing, permitting, and packaging development sites for sale to natural gas power developers; but this time, his customers were independent power developers looking to build large-scale wind farms. 

Be sure to check out Part II of the article, where John discusses his years with Crosstex Energy as it developed and built the first dedicated midstream natural gas pipeline and processing complex dedicated exclusively to Barnett Shale production; his transition to Pioneer Water Management as he helped negotiate landmark deals with Midland and Odessa; and now, his role leading one of the industry’s most innovative water management and produced water midstream companies, XRI.