Houston energy leader Barbara Burger joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the energy transition's biggest challenges and her key takeaways from CERAWeek. Photo courtesy of CERAWeek

Last month, Barbara Burger participated in four panels at CERAWeek by S&P Global, and from her insider perspective, she had a few key takeaways from the event, which brought together energy leaders, tech startups, dignitaries, civil servants, and more.

In a recent podcast interview, Burger shared some of her key takeaways from the event — and how these trends are affecting the industry as a whole. Read through an excerpt or stream the full episode below.

Houston Innovators Podcast: I think most of the Houston energy world knows who you are, namely from your role leading Chevron Technology Ventures, which you left a few years ago now. So catch us up on what life looks like for you lately. I know you’re involved with a lot of organizations, so break down how you distribute your time with all of them?

Barbara Burger: The last two years since I left Chevron, I’ve built this portfolio of really interesting roles. Having been an executive for so long — executives are in there, doing stuff for the company — now, I’m an adviser or director at the company level, at the investor level, and at an investment bank, all in energy transition.

I have some challenges I want to work on that are really important to me — and those tend to not be in the for-profit space in education and performing arts.

I have some informal roles that I found I really enjoy — I mentor a wide variety of people. I have time to learn changes amid the energy transition and to attend conferences.

HIP: One of those conferences was CERAWeek last month. Why was that one important to Houston and what were your key takaways?

BB: CERAWeek is known as the "Super Bowl of Energy." It’s been going on for 40 years and really shows you the trends in energy across so many different dimensions. There’s so much in energy and you can get in your own narrow silo of working on something, and CERAWeek is an opportunity to actually see the bigger picture.

One takeaway was that it was a very practical approach. We need an energy system that focuses on climate, the economy, security — a lot of this is just the block and tackling of engineering, policy, economics, and community engagement. I think it was a practical discussion.

The other is that everybody has woken up and realized that our load growth — our demand — is growing, and because of all kinds of things pointing toward electrification. I think that the big one in the room was AI and the power demands for it.

It’s not just about the innovation — it’s really about scaling that innovation and that execution, because that’s when we get impact, when these technologies are actually used in the energy system, and when we create new businesses. It’s going to take investment, capabilities, a real understanding of the marketplace, and, in many cases, it’s going to take a relationship with the government.

Philanthropists were there, but I wish I'd seen more of a presence from private equity. Every year I see more people from outside of what I would call the conventional energy industry, and I think that’s really good.

There’s a lot pools of capital, and they’re different and siloed, and they even use different vocabulary. Making those transitions is really important. That’s where I think the private equity investors play a role here, and venture and private equity — those are two different places, but we’re starting to see collaboration between them.

HIP: The United States Department of Energy had a notable presence at CERAWeek this year. What do you think about the organization's efforts and recent approach to 

BB: In years gone by, DOE funding was much more focused on early stuff — research and development. We all know that if you cannot scale and put technologies into operation, you do not get the impact. So the DOE has developed programs to focus and deployments.

They aren’t trying to replace private capital, but they are trying to be catalytic — which is also a role philanthropists are doing. Go in where the market won’t make the right call to buy down some of the uncertainty. They've been really collaborative and have skin in the game on this one.

HIP: What keeps you up at night when you think of the future of energy?

BB: One of the biggest risks is that we do not act fast enough, and what I mean is that we somehow convince ourselves that we do not need to evolve — and that’s as companies, as a nation, or as a globe.

We’ve made tremendous progress in 10 years. But I believe that in 2050 that we will look back and say, "why didn’t we start earlier and why weren’t we consistent with our actions." The energy transition gets politicized, and we don’t move with conviction.

HIP: What about the role Houston plays in all of this?

BB: I've been bullish on Houston in the energy transition. I moved here 11 years ago, and I had no companies in my portfolio in CTV from Houston, and I wondered why. There are a few things I’m proud of in the ecosystem here, and one of theme is that it’s a very inclusive ecosystem — and I mean that there's all different startups — student founded, operator founded, and incumbent companies at the table, but the worst way to get people to not join a party is to not invite them.

No one company or organization is going to solve this. We have to get along. We have to stop thinking that the mode is to compete with each other because the pie is so big and the opportunity is so big to work together — and by and large I do see that happening.

Houston-based Milestone Environmental Services, which provides environmental services and carbon management, named energy leader and former Chevron executive Barbara J. Burger to its board of managers. Photo courtesy

Environmental services firm names Houston energy leader to board


Barbara Burger has joined the board of one of the largest energy waste sequestration companies.

Houston-based Milestone Environmental Services, which provides environmental services and carbon management, named energy leader and former Chevron executive Barbara J. Burger to its board of managers, effective February 17.

“I am very pleased to welcome Dr. Barbara Burger to the Milestone Board and look forward to her invaluable insights and contributions,” Milestone President and CEO Gabriel Rio says in a news release. “Barbara’s impressive career in the energy industry coupled with her passion for education, sustainability, and resolving the challenges facing the energy transition will undoubtedly prove beneficial for Milestone, our customers, and our other stakeholders.”

Burger, who previously served as vice president of innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures, also holds adviser roles and board positions at other innovative companies.

“I look forward to working with the Milestone team as they build on their leading environmental services business and develop an energy transition-critical carbon capture and sequestration business,” Burger adds.

Burger, who was awarded InnovationMap's inaugural Trailblazer Award in 2021, is senior adviser to Lazard, on the board of directors of Heliogen, and more. She also actively serves the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Activate, and the Houston Symphony.

Last fall, Milestone Environmental Services announced that it has been acquired by affiliates of SK Capital Partners for an undisclosed amount.

Houston is in the running to receive millions from a program from the National Science Foundation. Photo via Getty Images

Houston named semifinalist for major NSF energy transition funding opportunity


The National Science Foundation announced 34 semifinalists for a regional innovation program that will deploy up to $160 million in federal funding over the next 10 years. Among the list of potential regions to receive this influx of capital is Houston.

The Greater Houston Partnership and the Houston Energy Transition Initiative developed the application for the NSF Regional Innovation Engine competition in collaboration with economic, civic, and educational leaders from across the city and five regional universities, including the University of Houston, The University of Texas at Austin, Texas Southern University, Rice University, and Texas A&M University.

The proposed project for Houston — called the Accelerating Carbon-Neutral Technologies and Policies for Energy Transition, or ACT, Engine — emphasizes developing sustainable and equitable opportunities for innovators and entrepreneurs while also pursuing sustainable and equitable energy access for all.

“The ACT Engine will leverage our diverse energy innovation ecosystem and talent, creating a true competitive advantage for existing and new energy companies across our region," says Jane Stricker, senior vice president of energy transition and executive director for HETI, in a statement. "Texas is leading the way in nearly every energy and energy transition solution, and this Engine can catalyze our region’s continued growth in low-carbon technology development and deployment."

If Houston's proposal is selected as a finalist, it could receive up to $160 million over 10 years. The final list of NSF Engines awards is expected this fall, and, according to a release, each awardee will initially receiving about $15 million for the first two years.

"Each of these NSF Engines semifinalists represents an emerging hub of innovation and lends their talents and resources to form the fabric of NSF's vision to create opportunities everywhere and enable innovation anywhere," NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan says in a news release. "These teams will spring ideas, talent, pathways and resources to create vibrant innovation ecosystems all across our nation."

The NSF selected its 34 semifinalists from 188 original applicants, and the next step for Houston is a virtual site visit that will assess competitive advantages, budget and resource plans for R&D and workforce development, and the proposed leadership’s ability to mobilize plans into action over the first two years.

"Houston is poised, like no other city, to lead the energy transition. The ACT Engine presents a remarkable opportunity to not only leverage the region's unparalleled energy resources and expertise but also harness our can-do spirit. Houston has a proven track record of embracing challenges and finding innovative solutions,” says Renu Khator, president of the University of Houston, in the statement. “Through the collaborative efforts facilitated by the ACT Engine, I am confident that we can make significant strides towards creating a sustainable future that harmonizes economic growth, environmental protection and social equity."

NSF Engines will announce awards this fall after a round of in-person interviews of finalists named in July. With Houston's track record for building thriving industry hubs in energy, health care, aerospace, and the culinary arts, the region is eager to establish the next generation of leaders and dreamers responding to some of the greatest economic and societal challenges ever seen in America.

“Our energy innovation ecosystem is inclusive, dynamic, and fast growing," says Barbara Burger, energy transition adviser and former Chevron executive, in the release. "The ACT Engine has the potential to increase the amount of innovation coming into the ecosystem and the capabilities available to scale technologies needed in the energy transition. I am confident that the members of the ecosystem — incubators, accelerators, investors, universities, and corporates — are ready for the challenge that the ACT Engine will provide."

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3 Houston sustainability startups score prizes at Rice University pitch competition

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A group of Rice University student-founded companies shared $100,000 of cash prizes at an annual startup competition — and three of those winning companies are focused on sustainable solutions.

Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship's H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge, hosted by Rice earlier this month, named its winners for 2024. HEXASpec, a company that's created a new material to improve heat management for the semiconductor industry, won the top prize and $50,000 cash.

Founded by Rice Ph.D. candidates Tianshu Zhai and Chen-Yang Lin, who are a part of Lilie’s 2024 Innovation Fellows program, HEXASpec is improving efficiency and sustainability within the semiconductor industry, which usually consumes millions of gallons of water used to cool data centers. According to Rice's news release, HEXASpec's "next-generation chip packaging offer 20 times higher thermal conductivity and improved protection performance, cooling the chips faster and reducing the operational surface temperature."

A few other sustainability-focused startups won prizes, too. CoFlux Purification, a company that has a technology that breaks down PFAS using a novel absorbent for chemical-free water, won second place and $25,000, as well as the Audience Choice Award, which came with an additional $2,000.

Solidec, a company that's working on a platform to produce chemicals from captured carbon, and HEXASpec won Outstanding Achievement in Climate Solutions Prizes, which came with $1,000.

The NRLC, open to Rice students, is Lilie's hallmark event. Last year's winner was fashion tech startup, Goldie.

“We are the home of everything entrepreneurship, innovation and research commercialization for the entire Rice student, faculty and alumni communities,” Kyle Judah, executive director at Lilie, says in a news release. “We’re a place for you to immerse yourself in a problem you care about, to experiment, to try and fail and keep trying and trying and trying again amongst a community of fellow rebels, coloring outside the lines of convention."

This year, the competition started with 100 student venture teams before being whittled down to the final five at the championship. The program is supported by Lilie’s mentor team, Frank Liu and the Liu Family Foundation, Rice Business, Rice’s Office of Innovation, and other donors

“The heart and soul of what we’re doing to really take it to the next level with entrepreneurship here at Rice is this fantastic team,” Peter Rodriguez, dean of Rice Business, adds. “And they’re doing an outstanding job every year, reaching further, bringing in more students. My understanding is we had more than 100 teams submit applications. It’s an extraordinarily high number. It tells you a lot about what we have at Rice and what this team has been cooking and making happen here at Rice for a long, long time.”


This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

ExxonMobil's $60B acquisition gets FTC clearance — with one condition

M&A moves

ExxonMobil's $60 billion deal to buy Pioneer Natural Resources on Thursday received clearance from the Federal Trade Commission, but the former CEO of Pioneer was barred from joining the new company's board of directors.

The FTC said Thursday that Scott Sheffield, who founded Pioneer in 1997, colluded with OPEC and OPEC+ to potentially raise crude oil prices. Sheffield retired from the company in 2016, but he returned as president and CEO in 2019, served as CEO from 2021 to 2023, and continues to serve on the board. Since Jan. 1, he has served as special adviser to the company’s chief executive.

“Through public statements, text messages, in-person meetings, WhatsApp conversations and other communications while at Pioneer, Sheffield sought to align oil production across the Permian Basin in West Texas and New Mexico with OPEC+,” according to the FTC. It proposed a consent order that Exxon won't appoint any Pioneer employee, with a few exceptions, to its board.

Dallas-based Pioneer said in a statement it disagreed with the allegations but would not impede closing of the merger, which was announced in October 2023.

“Sheffield and Pioneer believe that the FTC’s complaint reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the U.S. and global oil markets and misreads the nature and intent of Mr. Sheffield’s actions,” the company said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said it was “disappointing that FTC is making the same mistake they made 25 years ago when I warned about the Exxon and Mobil merger in 1999.”

Schumer and 22 other Democratic senators had urged the FTC to investigate the deal and a separate merger between Chevron and Hess, saying they could lead to higher prices, hurt competition and force families to pay more at the pump.

The deal with Pioneer vastly expands Exxon’s presence in the Permian Basin, a huge oilfield that straddles the border between Texas and New Mexico. Pioneer’s more than 850,000 net acres in the Midland Basin will be combined with Exxon’s 570,000 net acres in the Delaware and Midland Basin, nearly contiguous fields that will allow the combined company to trim costs.