Bellanne (“Belle”) Meltzer Toren maintains her own practice as an international petroleum consultant in Canmore, Alberta, Canada. She is a Senior Advisor to the Section’s International Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Your legal practice focuses on energy law and transnational negotiations. Could you tell us about how you got into this type of legal work?
As a law student at Duke University, I had a keen interest in studying international law, but I was also charmed by the wit and talents of my oil and gas law professor, Richard C. Maxwell. Upon graduating law school, I chose to follow in his footsteps and practice oil and gas law at the Dallas office of Thompson & Knight LLP. In early 1989, I joined the firm’s legal team defending Texaco Inc. against the IRS’s tax deficiency claims related to the ARAMCO Advantage. The IRS claimed that the Arabian-American Oil Co. (a consortium of Texaco, Exxon, Chevron, and Mobil) obtained large quantities of Saudi crude at a discounted market rate, the “Aramco advantage,” and sought to have the profits from the “Advantage” realized by their respective foreign subsidiaries with the intent of avoiding U.S. taxation. Texaco and the other Aramco defendants ultimately prevailed. My appetite for international petroleum was immensely whetted by my work for Texaco. By mid-1991, I had leaped into a primarily international petroleum practice at Triton Energy Limited, a NYSE company, and joined the Association of International Petroleum Negotiators (AIPN).
You were recently recognized as a Featured Member of the Association of International Petroleum Negotiators (AIPN) for your more than three decades of work in the petroleum industry. What has been one of your favorite moments or accomplishments?
While at Triton, I managed an efficient and resourceful legal, procurement, and negotiating team. I was able to deputize engineers, accountants, and geologists from within Triton into the negotiating or legal operations team that I headed for country entry or new projects by mentoring them in the Triton form of contract and contract philosophy. The reliance at Triton on the term sheet (for country entry) or model contracts (for petroleum operations) was the norm in 2001 when Triton was acquired by Hess Corporation. The common acceptance of a corporate philosophy to terms in operating contracts had an added benefit, the elimination of litigation in large part due to the early notification to the legal department of a potential contractual dispute by Triton’s operations personnel. In 2001, when Triton was acquired for US$3.2 billion, it had no known potential claims brewing or litigation regarding its global petroleum operations. Litigation can chip away at or destroy shareholder value; emerging disputes were dealt with swiftly at Triton with beneficial results.
As a negotiator, what are some of the key hard and soft skills that are needed when working on transnational contracts?
On the hard skills that should be implemented, first and foremost is the need for preparation, which includes knowing the contract form; researching the applicable law, historic events relating the parties or the type of contract being negotiated, your client’s position, the other parties’ aspirations; and familiarizing yourself with your team members and the other party’s team members capabilities (experience, education, and potential biases), local practice, and culture.
On the soft skills, you need to exhibit a variety of personal skills, like empathy, fairness, reliability, sincerity, and, above all, the ability to listen and combine these skills with a predictable, firm, and clear managerial process and a decision-making capability. I find that philosophically, the best negotiating objective is to seek a win-win result. Best contract results are realized by the negotiators or teams, who achieve mutual respect and trust, and, at the conclusion of the signing ceremony, feel that they have a practical contract supported by a working relationship that will be resilient even in their personal absence or upon the divergence of interests.
What do you see as an important trend in international energy law that legal practitioners should learn more about?
The world is spinning at an ever accelerating rate since I started working in international energy. In 1991, we relied upon carbon copy sheets, a fax machine and a few courier services with most negotiations being conducted face to face around a table in a foreign land. Today, I don’t travel as much; I can whip out my smartphone and communicate instantly via text, Skype, WhatsApp, email, etc. Hence, it is more difficult to develop personal relationships based upon mutual trust and respect needed for enduring long-term energy contracts. In the near future, I expect the use of artificial intelligence and implementation of blockchain technology to be essential to the practice of international energy law.
You have been involved in a range of leadership positions within the Section, including as a former Co-Chair of the International Energy and Natural Resources Committee and liaison to external organizations. Why did you feel it was important to become active as a leader within the Section?
Active participation in the Section enables growth and refinement of a person’s soft skills in a way that will benefit clients and the volunteer, and, along the way, you learn a lot. The Section facilitates work with a variety of persons from across the globe. As a leader in the Section, you can practice and improve your management skill and assume responsibility for motivating and mentoring others. Moreover, you become part of an amazing network of professionals that you might never otherwise access without the benefit of the Section, its committees, and their respective programs. My international standing and contact list, in part developed over years of activism in the Section, AIPN, and other organizations, is to my practice what trade secrets are to a corporation.
You’ve been running around the world, literally, in the sense that you have been doing marathons in various countries. What got you into marathons?
I am the accidental runner. After Hess closed the Triton office in Dallas in 2003 and moved personnel to Houston, I chose to work as a contractor for Hess from my home in Coppell, Texas. To create a new social network now without my traditional workplace, I joined the North Texas Chapter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training. I ran my first half marathon in January 2004 and never truly stopped running. I have competed in half marathons (my preferred distance) in many U.S. states, three Canadian provinces and Israel. I have run three marathons.
My most rewarding run was my last marathon, the Marathon of Afghanistan. I was one of the fifteen foreigners who participated in this marathon with about 300+ 10k and marathon runners of both genders from Afghanistan and my amazing running companion, Mahsa Torabi, from Iran. She broke all rules by sneaking onto the course for the first international marathon held in Iran (intended as an all-male event) in 2016 and finishing the race. The co-sponsor of the Marathon of Afghanistan, a non-profit organization, Free to Run operates in three provinces of Afghanistan and also in Hong Kong. During my 7 days in Bamian, Afghanistan, I was able to meet with the members of Free to Run on a group hike and when they were kayaking at Band-e Amir National Park. “Free to Run’s mission is to use running, physical fitness, and outdoor adventure to empower and educate women and girls who have been affected by conflict.” My Afghanistan running experience has inspired me to identify and remove social stigmas or legal barriers to women or disadvantaged persons. I have come a long way since I entered Duke Law School, and there is more yet to come to my journey, professionally and as a runner.