June 2024 Vol. 79 No. 6


Inside Infrastructure: 8th DCA/AGA workshop bolsters communication, cooperation

By Eben M. Wyman, Wyman Associates 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Eben Wyman is a veteran advocate for key underground utility and pipeline associations. He can be contacted at eben@wymanassociates.net. 

(UI) — DCA and the American Gas Association (AGA) held the eighth annual DCA & AGA Workshop at the InterContinental Hotel Kansas City on March 18-20. The joint workshop was originally established to bolster communication and cooperation between local distribution companies (LDCs) and the contractors who build gas distribution infrastructure for them.

At a time when America is in the midst of the largest infrastructure buildout in history and recognizing that the vast majority of construction work is contracted out, ensuring strong relationships between LDCs and other facility owners and their contractors is more important than ever.   

The 2024 workshop brought some 140 industry representatives to Kansas City for a day and a half of presentations and panel discussions about a range of industry issues, including: underground damage prevention, state-of-the-art facility mapping, operator qualification, pipeline safety management systems (SMS), cyber and physical security, workforce development efforts in the gas distribution industry, and ongoing legislative and regulatory activities facing the industry at the state and federal level.  

PHMSA talks partnership, safety culture

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is responsible for regulating some 2.3 million miles of natural gas and hazardous liquid pipelines through development and enforcement of safety regulations, research and development, and working with a range of industry organizations on many safety initiatives. To kick off the workshop, a senior deputy at PHMSA provided an overview of the nation’s pipeline safety program with a distinct focus on excavation damage prevention, which continues to be one of the leading causes of pipeline failures.  

PHMSA works with its state partners and other organizations, such as the Common Ground Alliance (CGA), to advance damage prevention effectiveness at both the federal and state level. Public utility commissions and/or other entities that oversee state damage prevention programs are offered multiple sources of federal grant dollars intended to help improve state efforts to reduce damages. Examples are PHMSA damage prevention grants, technical assistance grants and base grants. Because of the importance of protecting underground facilities, PHMSA encourages states to take advantage of these resources to implement several elements deemed necessary to maintain an effective state damage prevention program.   

Compliance with damage prevention responsibilities is obviously fundamental to adherence to Distribution Integrity Management Program (DIMP) requirements. However, PHMSA described another problem in the damage prevention process – the overburdening of contract locators with an unrealistic number of 811 tickets to clear in a short timeframe. Better management of 811 tickets can be improved on both the operator and contractor side. The industry is also in dire need of better mapping of facilities.  

PHMSA also believes that instilling and maintaining a culture of safety is critical. Operators should begin communicating their expectations regarding safety management systems (SMS) with their contractors sooner, rather than later. PHMSA also recognized the need to ensure effective damage prevention, as federal dollars from the bipartisan infrastructure law continue to flood into several underground infrastructure markets.  

OQ Integrity Coalition advancing pilot programs

The Operator Qualification Integrity Process (OQIP) is an industry effort spearheaded by DCA and AGA with the goal of standardizing OQ processes, while raising the bar on pipeline integrity. The process has been integrated and tested in three initial pilot programs in New Mexico, Michigan and Washington state. A panel of gas utility operators running these pilots provided an update on progress and challenges they have experienced on their journey to continuously improve their OQ programs, in partnership with both contractors and service providers.  

Following some background on the OQIP and the progress made since the coalition was established some 10 years ago, this panel discussed what the coalition refers to as ‘Phase 2.’ This will consist of an evaluation of lessons learned during the pilots and how to expand participation in OQIP pilot programs or otherwise encourage implementation of OQIP approaches in existing OQ programs.  

White papers on each of the current pilots are provided on the OQIP website (oqip.org), and the OQ Coalition looks forward to advancing the OQIP as it confirms its governance and plans for next steps. Interested parties were encouraged to contact DCA or AGA for more information.  

Significant progress related to pipeline SMS 

Since the release of API Recommended Practice 1173, Pipeline Safety Management Systems, in 2015, the pipeline industry has done a lot of great work to voluntarily transition toward the top-to-bottom, cyclical process of ensuring continuous improvement in the safety of pipeline operations.  

In 2020, the Pipeline SMS Industry Team invited contractors to the table and progress has been made on several fronts ever since. DCA’s SMS “template” was distributed to several industry groups, and the association helped develop the Industry Team’s contractor guidance document. DCA is now participating in multiple assessments of their own SMS programs and approaches.  

Contractor Assessments

A panel of contractors and operators discussed the contractor role in Pipeline SMS and the Industry Team’s recent release of its “Contractor Assessment Tool” and the best ways contractors can learn more about implementing an SMS program.   

The chief operating officer of a leading utility contractor enthusiastically described how contractors now have a real voice in the SMS discussion, and the contracting community appreciates the Industry Team inviting a DCA member to serve as its vice chair. Implementation of SMS is now happening in a collaborative way.  

The Contractor Assessment Program provides contractors the opportunity to work with operators to evaluate where they are in terms of the maturity of their SMS program. Establishing a culture of safety throughout the company is fundamental, and contractors were encouraged to “start now – don’t wait” when it comes to looking at SMS and to ask customers about their expectations regarding SMS approaches in pipeline construction.  

Perspective from an LDC

Later in the workshop program, a project manager from a leading gas utility described his company’s own journey toward effective pipeline safety management. He noted that SMS has a proven track record in other industries, such as aviation, nuclear power and chemical manufacturing, and is being effectively implemented in the pipeline industry.  

An original gap analysis set the stage for this operator, which led to setting up an SMS framework and process to assess the maturity of its SMS in the future. While human error is generally inevitable, operational excellence should strive to exceed the expectations of customers, regulators and other stakeholders. SMS can and should be a big part of that.  

To say the least, sentiments about the need to instill and maintain a strong safety culture and to continue the transition to SMS in the industry, were shared by operators and contractor panelists alike.  

Leadership Development helps address workforce

The gas distribution construction industry continues to face serious workforce capacity challenges, and there doesn’t seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel. If quality candidates interested in working in the energy sector are not able to secure a job based on their existing qualifications, they will go elsewhere, and the gas industry will miss opportunities of adding quality workers to a struggling workforce.  

A panel of DCA’s Workforce Development Committee provided a lively discussion of how the industry can come together to increase opportunities to bring talent into the workforce through the “sharing” of candidates. The energy and construction industries continue to face an aging workforce, a mismatch of needed skills, and a general decline of interest in some quality careers. Supply chain challenges that were more than disruptive following the pandemic, uncertainty over available childcare, lack of flexible work schedules, anxiety over available transportation, and other concerns, have led to certain positions remaining open for prolonged periods of time. 

This panel asked the question: can and would employers share information regarding potential workers through “talent sharing?” Specifically, it means sharing of information about job candidates in a collaborative way among competing companies, and even the associations that represent them. Can associations serve as repositories of this shared information through creation of a joint website and/or other venues?  

The concept of talent sharing was well-received, although full transparency will be needed in the process. In addition, possible benefits and challenges will need to be fully discussed. At the very least, this panel on workforce development provoked significant discussion on an enduring problem.  

Legislative and regulatory challenges

A leading industry lobbyist representing gas utilities provided the lay of the land for the energy industry on Capitol Hill at essentially “halftime” in what is shaping up to be an undoubtably consequential election year. Workshop attendees were not likely surprised to hear that not much in terms of legislative productivity is expected this year, when a historic rematch of two unpopular presidential candidates and an unquestionably toxic environment in Congress will exacerbate the already slim changes of anything substantial passing in the remaining months of the 118th Congress.  

For the gas industry, the ongoing attack on the natural gas industry is expected to continue. At the same time, tens of thousands of new gas distribution lines are being built; the industry has reduced emissions by some 70 percent; and demand, production and storage of natural gas continues to increase.   

The fight over “fuel choice” versus banning or restricting access to natural gas and other fuel sources continues. Permitting processes are not getting any easier, and the president’s shortsighted ban on liquified natural gas exports has been highly criticized by both the energy industry and political pundits. The bottom line is the Biden Administration’s regulatory agenda continues to potentially threaten the future of natural gas, despite steady or increasing demand.  

The key takeaway: this industry faces multiple challenges, but the need for a strong gas distribution market will be needed for the foreseeable future.  

Damage Prevention Institute up and running

In recent years, the Common Ground Alliance (CGA) Damage Prevention Institute (DPI) was established to create an innovative opportunity for industry to address systemic inefficiencies in the excavation damage prevention process through a metrics-focused, peer-reviewed model of shared accountability that serves all stakeholders. DPI was launched January 2023, and its mission builds on the industry-leading insights of CGA’s Next Practices Initiative and by utilizing a stakeholder-centered approach to develop performance metrics that reflect commitment to CGA best practices and dedication to improving damage prevention. 

CGA consists of over 1,500 members and 16 stakeholder groups, and promotes shared responsibility in damage prevention. Main priorities include collection of robust data related to excavation, promotion of innovative technologies, and identifying and promoting existing damage prevention best practices. CGA also launched its “Next Practices” initiative, where future issues, practices and technologies are evaluated.  

The majority of all damages are caused by six root causes: no notification to 811 by the excavator; facilities not marked due to locator error; failure to verify and/or maintain facility marks; mismarked facilities; improper excavation; and problems associated with potholing. CGA provided specifics regarding DPI. Excavators represent the largest stakeholder group in CGA, and most are now participating in DPI activities. Eligible participants must agree to adhere to multiple requirements, including comprehensive accreditation, monthly reporting into CGA’s DIRT, and participation in DPI peer reviews. 

DPI peer reviews are ongoing, and contractors, operators and locators were encouraged to consider participating in this important new program.  

Cyber, physical security in gas distribution

Since the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack, the goal of better protecting cybersecurity in the pipeline industry has been a focal point at industry conferences. AGA staff provided a thorough description of not only cybersecurity challenges, but what industry is doing to address physical threats to pipeline infrastructure. Bad actors continue to take advantage of lax cyber and physical security measures in all-sized companies to gain access to critical energy system infrastructure and information.   

Workshop participants were left with three takeaways: no facility is too small to be a target; impacted facilities may not have been the intended target; and while some attacks are unavoidable, measures can be taken now to mitigate future attacks.  

It’s important to remember the main goal of cyberattacks is no longer to gain intellectual property; it is to disrupt service. Cyber ‘adversaries’ want to engage systems under guise of being an employee, and they want to attack when least expected.  

Cyber physical attacks are on the rise, and regulation is widely expected. In other sectors subject to federal cybersecurity requirements, contractors and subcontractors are having to move toward cyber certification. This could be burdensome but understanding the increased threats to the security of critical infrastructure, it is an issue industry should be mindful of. 

GIS in the pipeline industry 

As was evident in many damage prevention discussions, underground facility mapping is in dire need of improvement. Use of technologies like geographic information systems (GIS) is gaining high levels of attention in multiple industries and government entities, including the gas distribution sector.  

A presentation on a promising pilot program established to improve the 811 process through digital visualizations of underground facilities using GIS mapping was provided to workshop attendees. The Minnesota Utilities Mapping Project (MN UMP) was developed by Gopher State One-Call (GSOC) and the Minnesota Geospatial Advisory Council as a new process that can revolutionize access to underground utility maps for damage prevention stakeholders. It leverages widely accessible technology and protects sensitive information about the specific location of a given pipeline.  

The MN UMP began in 2019 and has been a case study monitored by CGA since 2020. GSOC worked with the advisory council to generate high-quality GIS imaging, providing real-time viewing of subsurface utility systems. All viewing access and time periods allowing access are at the operator’s discretion. The pilot was completed in 2022 and GSOC is now advancing the program in Minnesota.  

Impacts and considerations: artificial intelligence 

Continuum Capitol closed out the workshop with an insightful market overview regarding gas distribution and a range of other sectors. According to Continuum, we stand on the “precipice of the largest wave of underground utility construction activity in all utility markets over the next three to seven years.” Also, the potential for the integration of hydrogen and renewable natural gas, along with CO2 capture, transport and storage activity, presents new opportunities. Of course, there are challenges and changes that come with them, the most interesting of which is artificial intelligence (AI).  

According to Continuum, we’re now heading towards times of “volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity” (VUCA), and industry should be prepared for it. Geopolitical conflicts in several “hot spots” around the globe, the ongoing partisan fights over America’s energy future, and the general political landscape certainly make the case for industry stakeholders to take a hard look at VUCA considerations.  

Continuum provided an entertaining video demonstrating Hollywood examples of AI from the 1960s through the 2020s, and then real-life examples of how AI, machine learning and robotics are changing the game in terms of augmenting our existing (and struggling) workforce. While there are benefits offered by AI, from maximizing operational effectiveness to addressing workforce capacity issues, there are serious factors to consider.  

For example, all proprietary information applied in AI and machine learning will become “part of the answer.” This and other concerns related to cybersecurity, dissemination of false information, and other new ‘issues of the day’ are now key considerations.  

The DCA/AGA workshop is a unique event in the utility construction industry, and the need for strong and reliable relationships between utilities and their contractors has never been greater. The fact that most construction operations are contracted out and that the industry faces serious workforce issues is enough to warrant these discussions. Recognizing that hundreds of billions of dollars are on the way to virtually all utility markets, continued conversations are essential.

Related Articles

From Archive


{{ error }}
{{ comment.comment.Name }} • {{ comment.timeAgo }}
{{ comment.comment.Text }}