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In this episode of the Pipeliners Podcast, host Russel Treat recaps the 2019 AGA Operations Conference held in late April and early May in Nashville.

Russel recaps the most important takeaways and conversations during the conference, his role in hosting a Q&A on the NTSB Most Wanted List with pipeline executives, the results of several informal polls about pipeline activity, and the latest efforts to support pipeline safety.

AGA Ops Conference Recap: Show Notes, Links, and Insider Terms

  • AGA (American Gas Association) represents companies delivering natural gas safely, reliably, and in an environmentally responsible way to help improve the quality of life for their customers every day. AGA’s mission is to provide clear value to its membership and serve as the indispensable, leading voice and facilitator on its behalf in promoting the safe, reliable, and efficient delivery of natural gas to homes and businesses across the nation.
  • The annual AGA Operations Conference is the natural gas industry’s largest gathering of natural gas utility and transmission company operations management from across North America and the world. During the conference, participants share technical knowledge, ideas, and practices to promote the safe, reliable, and cost-effective delivery of natural gas to the end-user.
  • The San Bruno or PG&E Incident in September 2010 refers to a ruptured pipeline operated by the Pacific Gas & Electric Company. The rupture created a crater near San Bruno, California, caused an explosion after natural gas was released and ignited, and resulted in fires causing loss to life and property. [Read the full NTSB Accident Report.]
  • NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) is a U.S. government agency responsible for the safe transportation through Aviation, Highway, Marine, Railroad, and Pipeline. The entity investigates incidents and accidents involving transportation and also makes recommendations for safety improvements.
  • The Merrimack Valley gas explosion in Massachusetts in September 2018 was the result of excessive pressure build-up in a natural gas pipeline owned by Columbia Gas that led to a series of explosions and fires. [Read the preliminary NTSB Accident Report]
    • NTSB included a reference to the incident in the “Most Wanted List.” The open recommendation asks for a response from the state of Massachusetts to “eliminate the professional engineer licensure exemption for public utility work and require a professional engineer’s seal on public utility engineering drawings.”
  • Marquette Energy Analytics was formed from Marquette University’s GasDay Laboratory. MEA supports the growing applications for GasDay tools and methods applied to daily, hourly, and longer-term demand forecasting, as well as peak load forecasting under design day conditions.
    • Thomas Quinn is the CEO, managing director, and co-founder of Marquette Energy Analytics. Tom helped to establish the GasDay family of forecasting tools as a premier choice for utility-scale demand forecasting and analysis.
  • GIS (Geographic Information System) is a method of capturing the earth’s geographical profile to produce maps, capture data, and analyze geographical shifts that occur over time.

AGA Ops Conference Recap: Full Episode Transcript

Russel Treat:  Welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast, episode 74, sponsored by EnerSys Corporation, providers of POEMS, the Pipeline Operations Excellence Management System, compliance, and operations software for the pipeline control center. Find out more about POEMS at EnerSysCorp.com.

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Announcer:  The Pipeliners Podcast, where professionals, Bubba geeks, and industry insiders share their knowledge and experience about technology, projects, and pipeline operations.

Now your host, Russel Treat.

Russel:  Thanks for listening to the Pipeliners Podcast. I appreciate you taking the time. To show that appreciation, we are giving away a YETI tumbler to one listener each episode. This week, our winner is William Kelley with Energy Transfer. Congratulations, your YETI is on its way.

Just like we did a couple of weeks ago, we’re going to recap a recent industry conference. This week, I attended the AGA Operations Conference in Nashville. Hung out primarily in the committee meetings around gas control and then attended some of the other sessions.

I’m going to give the listeners a rundown of some of the topics that were covered. Hopefully, for those of you that didn’t attend, it’ll be helpful. You’ll understand or know about what the industry’s talking about, what’s new or different and such like.

For those of you that haven’t been to the AGA Operations Conference, it’s probably helpful to know how it’s structured. At this particular conference, they had exhibits, but the AGA Operations Conference only has exhibits every other year.

Typically, the way the conference is put together, there is a two-day portion where there’s committee meetings. There’s a whole range of committees — there’s gas control, operations and maintenance, measurement, other types — that are dealing in detail about various topics of interest and standards and so forth that would impact the work within that domain.

That’s followed by a session of what’s more typical, which is various presentations by industry operators, by vendors, and so forth about new technology and projects and so forth. That’s the way the conference is structured.

In the case of the biennial exhibits with AGA, they have exhibits starting Tuesday night through Wednesday night. Very large exhibit floor this year. This was a record year for the AGA Operations Conference.

Upwards 3,000 attendees, so the conference is growing. It’s healthy. A lot of information. No way in the world I could talk about everything that was talked about, but I’ll give it a shot.

On Monday, we started out with a presentation by Alfred Musgrove of PG&E. He was presenting around the issue of 911 calls. To me, this is really an interesting topic. When you think about it, if I’m operating in a pipeline control center and I get a call or an alarm about something going on and I feel like I need to notify first responders, I don’t just call 911.

I’ve actually got to call a number that rings into the 911 center. Knowing which center to call and keeping those phone numbers current is non-trivial, particularly for an organization or an operator of any size.

Interesting in this, there was a question that was asked. You’ve got to realize that in this particular operations committee meeting, this is gas utility operators. They’re going to be organized differently than a liquid pipeline or even a gas transmission pipeline around their control room operations and who they interface with.

Most of these operators have not only a gas control center, but they’ll also have a dispatch center. The dispatch center is sending out the folks that are in trucks that are able to do the fieldwork. Dispatch is a very big part of any kind of utility operation.

They polled the room, “How many people do your control room actually place the calls to 911?” Realize when I say 911, I don’t mean dialing 911. I mean the 911 center, the emergency response center. Only about 20 percent said that they did this.

The other thing to be aware of, that this is actually an outcome of San Bruno. It’s one of the NTSB recommendations. If you want to look it up, the NTSB recommendation reference would be P-11-003. As you can imagine, this whole process of knowing who to call and when you call them, it’s really quite complicated.

If you think about something that’s simple, I live in the Houston area. In the neighborhood I’m in, there was just a realignment of fire and police. The police response and the fire response are not from the same entity. The fire comes from the local city. The police comes from the county, just given how our particular neighborhood is incorporated. Obviously, this can get very complicated.

Some of the things that were interesting in this conversation that I think are useful to think about. One of them is as you begin to think about notification of first responders, one of the questions is “When do you notify?”

Do you notify when you know you have an incident, or do you notify when you think you might have an incident and exactly at what point? I think every operator’s got to make that decision. Certainly, you don’t want to be thrashing, but there are also legitimate times when you want to make these kind of phone calls.

One of the questions that came up in the room was “Do the first responders even want to receive a call that says, ‘I’m letting you know that I may have an issue’?” The response to me was interesting. Really, the context is more I’m calling the first responder center and asking, “Have you received any ‘I smell gas’ calls?” That type of thing.

Are they getting calls that you wouldn’t be getting in the control center that might help you understand whether or not you have an issue and, if you do, where it is? It’s actually calling to solicit information, not just necessarily to provide information.

The other thing that’s important about this is there’s a certain amount of socialization and training required so that when you start working with the first responders and as they’re having turnover on the desk and doing their training, you’ve got to make sure that the people are familiarized with the nature of this kind of call. I’m going to see if I can get somebody on who can talk about this in more detail.

One of the other key takeaways is that one of the operators mentioned that they had coordinated with the state police. They had actually had state police come into the control center. They were talking about this issue about coordinating with some of the county offices and some of the other more local offices related to first response.

The gentleman that was talking about this said the state police were very helpful and very supportive for what it was they were trying to do and were actually able to open some doors and make some connections that they needed to make. Anyway, I thought that that conversation was quite interesting. Like everything else, it gets complicated.

Another one of the conversations was around an incident response during a day of peak load. I’m not going to get into a whole lot of details. I just want to cover the key takeaways.

Basically, the situation was we had a pipeline operator. Based on weather and other factors, they were prepping several days out for what was going to be the largest delivery in the history of the company. On the morning of that day, they lost their ability, due to a facility issue, to deliver gas out of storage, which caused quite a scramble.

If you think about that, it’s challenging enough to do a peak day delivery if everything goes right. If you hit something like losing one of the major supplies of gas, what do I do? I think some of the things that were really interesting, one of the key comments was made…

This organization had recently done a reconfiguration of its facilities. They had co-located their incident command and other groups that directly support or interact with the control room.

They found that to be exceedingly important around their ability to organize and effectively execute the response, particularly that they were able to separate some of the decisions around gas logistics from the execution of actually the things we need to do. The planning, which you can imagine was dynamic, was separated from the work of actually doing the tasks. This was helpful.

The facilities, the way they were organized and having people available to one another and yet allowing them to be separated and focus on their unique and complicated work was really critical to the ability to respond.

The other thing, they made the point that they actually used social media to communicate with the community about where they were at. Probably the biggest thing for me that was a takeaway in this conversation, something I wouldn’t have considered.

If you think about this, if I’m a gas utility, I’m operating at my max capacity. I lose a major source of supply. I go through all the things I need to do about taking some of the load offline and getting gas in from other places. I’m doing things I wouldn’t normally do.

Once I get through the issue and the weather warms back up or my limitation of supply is dealt with, now I’ve got an issue where I’ve got to get the gas demand back online or I’m going to have an oversupply.

There’s actually as much work and effort to get back to normal after you’ve gotten through the incident as there is to manage your way through the incident. That was a big takeaway for me. Certainly, when you think about it, that makes a lot of sense.

Also had the opportunity to meet a gentleman by the name of Thomas Quinn, who’s with Marquette Energy Analytics. They have a tool that’s used by gas utilities to forecast load. It takes weather data combined with historical load in order to support load forecasting.

I’ve talked to Thomas on the phone a number of times but finally got an opportunity to actually shake his hand and meet him in-person. Shout out to Thomas. He’s somebody I’d like to get on. Believe me, the information that he talked about in terms of how they do this forecasting, I find it quite fascinating.

There was a morning meeting on the second day of the conference. There was a cybersecurity update. Most of the people in the cybersecurity update were gas control folks. I found that interesting.

I think there’s others in the organizations that probably would or should have an interest. Certainly, it wasn’t just pipeline control center guys or gas control center guys. It was others as well, but certainly it was very well attended by that group.

They started talking about what are the threats. They talked about cybercrime and phishing, basically sending emails that look real to get somebody to click on something so that I can get your financial information. That’s an issue not only for individuals but for organizations.

Also talked about something called hacktivism, which is activists using cyber and physical means to do their activism. There seems to be more going on there.

Then they also talked about cyber espionage, which is nation states that are trying to get to proprietary IP or to do what’s called advanced persistent threats. That’s basically putting something in your machine and leaving it dormant until I need to wake it up and do something.

They talked about these threats and how there’s a need for not only cybersecurity but physical security, and in particular at remote sites where you’re dropping the company network to the remote site to pick up pressures and metering and perform controls.

Those can be a point of access. Looking at how you control point of access is probably a big conversation that’s going to be ongoing for a while in our world.

There was another conversation around control room communications. Again, this is something that I found very interesting. They were really looking at what is the quality of communications. How can we make the control room and interactions with the control room more effective and efficient?

There was a discussion about calls are recorded. Some subset of those calls are sampled and reviewed. Then a scorecard is put together. Then that scorecard is looking at a number of things.

Again, I think this is something that I would probably overlook if I were trying to do this myself, is the greeting. The way you actually answer the phone or what you first say when somebody on the other end of the phone picks up is a material consideration.

One of the points they were making is you want to be polite. You want to be professional. In some cases, you have a little time to chat. In some cases, you don’t. It depends on what you have going on and that the ability to provide that context in the greeting is important.

They also talked about the importance of the phonetic alphabet and using that when calling out references to things like valves and stations and so forth because it can eliminate misunderstanding and confusion.

Talked about the value or importance of three-way communications. This comes up in a lot of conversations. There can be resistance in the control room to doing this because it seems a little redundant, but it’s actually a very good habit to build.

If you ever have an opportunity to listen to cockpit tapes as the pilots flying aircraft are talking to control centers, they use three-way communication. Basically, you say something. You say the same thing back. Then you get an acknowledgement. You make sure that you’re landing the communications effectively.

You don’t want to do that for all communications. The point that was made in this conversation is it makes a lot of sense to do that for clearances, clearing into a facility, clearing out of a facility, communicating system conditions, communicating changing conditions, communicating instructions around controls or whatever.

Anytime when unintended operation could be a safety risk, you want to do three-way communications. The other thing that was interesting in this is that one of the things they said is that they’re finding opportunities for team training. They’re finding lessons learned. They’re finding things done right where if they hadn’t been done right, it could have been a big issue.

It’s actually creating an opportunity for them to build their training program. They actually shared the form they use. One of the comments that came back was adding the severity of the potential outcome to the form as a way to do the analysis after the fact and score how you’re doing with communications.

Interesting. I don’t know that this would be for everybody. Certainly in larger organizations and in organizations where there’s a lot of interaction between those in the field and those in the control room certainly could be some opportunity.

There was also some conversation about control room incidents and regulatory impact, particularly given the recent incident in Massachusetts and some of the learnings that are coming out of that. Again, an interesting conversation.

There was some conversation there about testing tools to find those people who not only do they have the resume to do the work but can actually, through appropriate testing, demonstrate the ability to do the work. I think that can be exceedingly valuable. Not everybody is cut out to do what’s required in the control room, just like any other kind of career or activity, I would say.

We also had some conversation about organizational structure and what’s the ideal organizational structure. There was some polling done about that and some conversation around the room. There was also that spun into a conversation about workload and how was workload quantified and what tools are people using.

I guess what I would say about this is that every control room is unique. Some control rooms, they actually calculate the upcoming anticipated load in the control room. Some control rooms don’t do that. Some control rooms are doing dispatch. Some control rooms don’t do dispatch.

You really have to not only look at workload. It’s difficult to compare workload between Company A and Company B because the organizational structure and the work requested in the control room can be very different.

Wrapping up the gas control roundtable or the gas control committee conversation was a conversation about standard operating procedures (SOPs). There was a key question. Who’s using paper copies versus electronic copies? I would say that almost everybody uses electronic copies. I was surprised by that. I thought there would be a lot more reliance on paper than what was the result of the polling.

Then there was a lot of conversation about how do you administer that documentation. There’s, again, a lot of variability about how people are doing that, a lot of difference in tools. I think that conversation was more to stir the pot a little bit and get some ideas.

I had a great opportunity for the podcast itself on Wednesday morning. I got to present to the AGA Managing Committee. The Managing Committee, they oversee the program for the Operations Conference.

The way we did this is we actually did an in-the-room exemplar podcast. I went through the NTSB Most Wanted List and asked questions of five senior executives with a number of different pipeline operating companies, utility operating companies.

What are you doing? What do you see as the challenges? How are you approaching this? Those kinds of questions. Let them answer in a room of about 40 people that were listening to the conversation. That was extremely well received. I went around and solicited some feedback. I was very glad to hear it was well received.

I tried to ask some challenging questions to facilitate the learning. There was some really good conversation in that. Maybe we’ll do that at some other conferences and some other places. We’ll see. If people shout off and want to do that, that’d be great.

I’m going to wrap up with a couple of final things. One, the natural gas business in the U.S. has a lot going on. It’s a growing business. It’s going to continue to grow. If you look at the amount of gas available to the industry, the amount of gas available to deliver, and the fact what’s going on with LNG and so forth, it’s pretty compelling.

Right now, about one-third of all the capital investment in the U.S. is going into the gas business. Between pipelines and plants and drilling and LNG, it is a big part of the economy right now.

If you will recall, those of you that have been in the business a little while, after some of the hurricanes about 15 years ago, there were some natural gas shortages and a little bit of scrambling and some very high spot prices for natural gas. It’s night and day. We’ve actually transitioned in the last 15 years from a net importer of natural gas to a net exporter of natural gas. That’s only expected to increase.

There were a whole lot of statistics given about greenhouse gas emissions, particularly CO2 emissions. There was a comparison of the amount of economic growth in the U.S. versus the amount of CO2 emission growth. The economic growth is way above the CO2 growth. Much of that is due to the use of natural gas as a means to generate electric power. A lot of things to be excited about and a lot of things to look forward to in the future.

Lastly, I did attend some of the technical presentations. The thing I found most interesting was just what some of these utilities are doing to capture detailed information about their connections to end users and getting that into their GIS databases, how they’re actually capturing information about the pipe, the valves, the physical location of the connections, the outlines of facilities.

Frankly, it’s extremely compelling how much information they’re capturing and how they’re using multiple kinds of devices, like barcode readers and cameras and phones and multiple different things, to bring this together and do it in a way that’s easy and straightforward. Being a guy who used to walk around and do that type of thing with a clipboard, man it’s a different day than when I started in the business. That’s for sure.

That’s a summary of the AGA Operations Conference. Hopefully, you guys find this interesting. If you have questions about the information, we’ll link up as much as we can onto the show notes page at PipelinersPodcast.com.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode of the Pipeliners Podcast and our conversation about the AGA Operations Conference. Hope to see you there next year if you plan on attending. I will certainly be there.

Just a reminder before you go. You should register to win our customized Pipeliners Podcast YETI tumbler. Simply visit pipelinerspodcast.com/win to enter yourself in the drawing.

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Russel:  Finally, if you have ideas, questions, or topics you’d be interested in, let me know on the Contact Us page at pipelinerspodcast.com, or reach out to me on LinkedIn. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you next week.

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Transcription by CastingWords

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