This week’s Pipeliners Podcast episode features first-time guest Mary Palkovich of Consumers Energy discussing the importance of the pipeline industry drawing from other industries to embrace a “safe harbor” approach of sharing information in an effort to increase pipeline safety.
In this episode, you will learn about the safe harbor constraints in the pipeline industry, how pipeline operators can better share lessons learned to improve pipeline safety, how to improve training through more information sharing, the role of Pipeline SMS driving information-sharing and safe harbor to support safety across the industry, and more important topics.
Safe Harbor: Show Notes, Links, and Insider Terms
- Mary Palkovich is the Vice President Gas Advocacy for CMS Energy and its principal subsidiary, Consumers Energy. Connect with Mary on LinkedIn.
- CMS Energy is an energy company focused principally on utility operations in Michigan. Its principal business is Consumers Energy, a public utility that provides electricity and natural gas to more than 60% of Michigan residents.
- Safe Harbor relates to operators within a specific industry being able to share and provide information to other operators without repercussions.
- 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.
- AGA Operations Managing Committee focuses on pipeline safety and operational issues to advance pipeline safety across the industry.
- DOT (Department of Transportation) is a cabinet-level agency of the federal government responsible for helping maintain and develop the nation’s transportation systems and infrastructure.
- Elaine Chao, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, is the head of the DOT and a member of the President’s Cabinet. The Secretary oversees the operating administrations of DOT and coordinates policies to provide an efficient and economical national transportation system.
- Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is responsible for providing pipeline safety oversight through regulatory rulemaking, NTSB recommendations, and other important functions to protect people and the environment through the safe transportation of energy and other hazardous materials.
- 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.
- Elaine Chao, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, is the head of the DOT and a member of the President’s Cabinet. The Secretary oversees the operating administrations of DOT and coordinates policies to provide an efficient and economical national transportation system.
- The Voluntary Information-Sharing System Working Group (VIS WG) was formed by Secretary Chao to develop a voluntary information-sharing system to encourage collaborative efforts to improve inspection information feedback and information sharing with the purpose of improving gas transmission and hazardous liquid pipeline facility integrity risk analysis.
- In April 2019, the working group released a letter to Secretary Chao providing three primary recommendations to advance pipeline safety. [Read the Full Letter]
- Pipeline SMS (Pipeline Safety Management Systems) or PSMS is an industry-wide focus to improve pipeline safety, driving toward zero incidents.
- Deming Method is a continuous quality improvement model consisting of a logical sequence of four repetitive steps for continuous improvement and learning: Plan, Do, Check (Study), and Act, that is embedded in Pipeline SMS.
- AOCs (Abnormal Operating Condition) is defined by the 49 CFR Subpart 195.503 and 192.803 as a condition identified by a pipeline operator that may indicate a malfunction of a component or deviation from normal operations that may indicate a condition exceeding design limits or result in a hazard(s) to persons, property, or the environment.
- American Public Gas Association (APGA) is the only association for municipal gas utilities in the United States.
- INGAA (Interstate Natural Gas Association of America) is a trade organization that advocates regulatory and legislative positions of importance to the natural gas pipeline industry in North America.
Safe Harbor: Full Episode Transcript
Russel Treat: Welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast, episode 137, sponsored by Energy Worldnet, a worldwide service provider to the oil and gas industry, making the world safer by providing pipeline operators and contractors innovative technology for operator qualification, safety training, content authoring, and guidance as pipelines operate in compliance with PHMSA, OSHA, and other regulatory requirements. To learn more about Energy Worldnet, visit energyworldnet.com.
Announcer: The Pipeliners Podcast, where professionals, Bubba geeks, and industry insiders share their knowledge and experience about technology, projects, and pipeline operations. And now, your host, Russel Treat.
Russel: Thanks for listening to the Pipeliners Podcast. I appreciate you taking the time, and to show that appreciation, we give away a customized YETI tumbler to one listener each episode. This week, our winner is Ian Stallman with Marathon Pipe Line. Congratulations, Ian, your YETI is on its way. To learn how you can win this signature prize pack, stick around to the end of the episode.
This week, our guest is Mary Palkovich with CMS Energy. She is joining us to talk about safe harbor, lessons learned, and work that’s going on to improve pipeline safety across the industry.
Mary, welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast.
Mary Palkovich: Thank you, Russel. I’m happy to be here.
Russel: So glad to have you. This subject that we’re going to get into around lessons learned and so forth, I think it’s really compelling. It’s one of those areas where we have an opportunity to make a big difference in our safety performance as an industry.
Before we dive in, maybe give us a little bit about your background. How’d you get into pipelining and what roles have you been in?
Mary: Back when I graduated from Michigan Tech in 1982, I took a position in the pipeline gas gathering field out in Denver, Colorado, for a pipeline company. I was actually in the field, doing inspection and technical work. Then I transferred to the office that they had, and I started doing FERC applications. That involved studies of pipeline capacity.
After that, I went from interstate gas pipeline work to distribution, and I joined a company out of Minneapolis.
That utility, I was there almost 22 years. I did work from engineering to gas supply contracting to regulatory compliance and gas control.
Then I took a position with a different distribution company, Consumers Energy based in Michigan, and I’ve been there for about seven and a half years now. I’ve had the opportunity to do both gas pipeline work and also electric engineering and electric system control.
Both those energies do intertwine. Pipelining is a little bit different in that it’s a whole lot more in the dirt, whereas obviously electrical is not as much.
That’s in a nutshell, real quick, what I’ve been doing in the last 30, what would that be? Since 1982. I think that’s a long time.
Russel: I’m with you, Mary. We don’t calculate numbers that large here.
Mary: No. Thank you for that.
Russel: [laughs] I also understand that you’re the loaned executive to the American Gas Association. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about what that program is and what’s involved in being a loaned executive.
Mary: Thanks for asking that, because a lot of people ask me, “What does that mean?” About 80 percent of my day, I spend working with the American Gas Association to improve pipeline safety, to advocate for fair pipeline safety regulations that actually do impact pipeline safety.
We also at the American Gas Association, my role is to share industry insight and technical understanding of how utilities and pipelines operate. It’s a twofold role, where I get to advocate with AGA, and then I get to provide to AGA an industry perspective.
Russel: That’s very interesting. How long is that term? How long are you the loaned executive?
Mary: It was for 2019 and 2020. Part of that decision that Consumers Energy made to create that assignment for me involved that I am chair of the Operations Managing Committee at AGA.
I was also appointed to the Gas Pipeline Advisory Committee by the Secretary of the Department of Transportation, Elaine Chao. She named me in January of 2019, so I serve along with others in the industry. We work with PHMSA to write language that makes the regulations usable and reasonable to improve pipeline safety.
Russel: Very broad background in particularly gas pipelining and a pretty comprehensive, a season of your career where you’re doing a lot of work with the industry at large beyond just your particular operating company.
Mary: That’s right. It does serve the company that I work for well because I’m bringing back to my company best practices from other companies and keeping an eye out toward what’s happening in the marketplace, what are the new tools, techniques, procedures, those types of things such as pipeline safety and management systems.
Russel: That’s a great segue. The subject is “Safe harbor, lessons learned, and training impacts.” I wanted to start out by asking what kind of lessons learned are not really shared between operators, and why is that?
Mary: I’m not sure that the issue is not being shared between operators. It’s currently the things that are shared are informal. There’s no formal forum for sharing near misses and the types of issues that we really need to be talking about.
I can give you an example. Let’s say that a pipeline company or a utility has an incident, and it does not hurt anybody so it doesn’t get on the headline. They know that there are things that either procedures should be changed or a tool could have done the job better.
Today’s forums, I may call up a friend I have who I worked with several years ago and say, “Hey, here’s what happened,” or I might be at a conference and at a happy hour talk about an incident. Currently today, we don’t have a formalized forum for sharing so that the entire industry can learn from it.
Russel: Would you say that when you’re sharing informally that that knowledge doesn’t transfer as broadly or as quickly?
Mary: That’s correct. I would say it doesn’t transfer as broadly or quickly, and it might not be transferred accurately.
Russel: Right. When you think about the incidents that warrant an NTSB investigation and you sit down and you read those reports, you really get a very detailed understanding of many factors that led to an adverse outcome.
Mary: Yeah, I agree with that.
Russel: When you’re sharing informally, you’re not really doing that detailed analysis.
Mary: You’re sharing informally, you’re not talking about recommendations to eliminate the risk and eliminate the threat.
Russel: If you are, it might be notional versus some kind of engineering basis behind it.
Mary: That’s right. There might not be a good strong analysis. It might be somebody’s opinion. It could be self-serving. It might not be the complete and total analysis that comes from a formal deep dive.
Russel: We’re using the term incident. It’s probably appropriate in this conversation I ask the same question but around near-misses.
Mary: That’s a good point because an incident that is high profile is probably going to have a report. It’s probably going to be investigated. A near miss, those are not on the headlines. Those are what companies know happen.
They may do their own risk analysis, but there’s not currently a forum to share near misses where an operator, or a utility, or a pipeline company can just really open up the conversation and say, “Look, here is what happened, and here are some recommendations so that the industry can learn.” Similar to what the airline industry did several decades ago and the nuclear industry.
Russel: I think too if you’re a student of accident investigation and you’re trying to look for root causes, it’s always better if there’s multiple parties looking at it. You tend to get a little myopic within your own organization.
Mary: That’s correct.
Russel: Versus what you might get if you get a broader look from multiple organizations.
Mary: I agree. It’s even I’ve seen in my experience when you have somebody who isn’t even in the department of knowledge and they come in, they may ask a question that some of the most knowledgeable might roll their eyes at, but a lot of times that’ll provoke a discussion that leads you to another recommendation that could minimize the risk.
Russel: Said another way, and this is a little tongue in cheek, but ignorance in some cases is an asset. Asking the really basic, simple question about why is that so.
Mary: Right. A lot of the incident investigations that you do the five whys, you keep drilling into the why until you don’t have any more whys left. Those are the kinds of things that if we had safe harbor protection, and I know that both the industry is very supportive of information sharing, we just really need that really statutory change so that we can share and be protected.
Russel: Why don’t you give us a definition of safe harbor for those that don’t know what that is?
Mary: I didn’t look it up or Google it, but I will tell you, for me, the safe harbor is the ability to provide information without repercussion.
Russel: There are programs, and you mentioned this in aviation and in nuke power, for safe harbor that encourages operators to share things amongst multiple operators.
Mary: That’s correct.
Russel: I’m thinking of aviation, I know in aviation it’s not just the operators. It’s actually the manufacturers as well.
Mary: Yeah, that’s correct. Tool manufacturers, software manufacturers, they all…For example, pipe, let’s say you get a batch of pipe that is maybe potentially got some issues with it and a company is dealing with that manufacturer. If it’s something that needs to be broadly shared, safe harbor would be a great tool so that everyone could learn from it, and it could be shared broadly to reduce incidents.
Russel: Being a guy who’s negotiated a number of master services agreements, I’m thinking about all the insurance requirements, and the indemnifications, and all the things that exist in those kind of agreements. I would assume that safe harbor would have some impact on that.
Mary: I think you’re right about that.
Russel: What kind of things would be in a safe harbor program?
Mary: There needs to be legal protection so that the liability is resolved to the satisfaction of the companies that would be providing information.
One of the things, Russel, that I would point to is the industry regulatory working group that published their report in April of 2019. The executive summary’s pretty short, but in that report what they talked about is that the safe harbor provisions really need to have, we need to get statutory change.
In the last pipeline safety reauthorization, which frankly is currently not moving very fast due to all of the pandemic issues and other things that we’re dealing with. That Pipeline Safety Voluntary Information Sharing Recommendation Report has a lot of good things in it. It includes things like these legal protections, that I just mentioned, and regulatory, statutory change that allows the sharing in a formalized way.
Also in a safe harbor program, the goal is to continue to improve pipeline safety through sharing. That can’t happen unless employees bring up issues, and are comfortable bringing up issues, and that companies are held safe from penalties, and FOIA restrictions are lifted for purposes of information sharing.
Safe harbor would allow a company to identify trends that might be applicable to the entire industry versus just inside their own company. A safe harbor program with the voluntary information sharing would allow for those issues and trends to be brought up for other companies to add their data to the analysis. Most of this is included in that VIS study that PHMSA produced in April of 2019.
The industry has been pushing for this, Russel, for legislation to create a voluntary information-sharing system which would include the safe harbor. The goal is, obviously, to improve pipeline safety and to have the ability to share near misses, not just the high profile events that you do get to see those reports on from the NTSB and PHMSA.
Russel: A couple of things. First off, we’ll link up this report in the show notes for anybody that wants to go to the website and download that. It does have some very interesting information in it.
The other thing I would say is as the industry moves towards four nines in pipeline safety performance, as we try to get better, it’s going to become more challenging because if you look at the overall activity, the industry pipeline transportation is generally very safe. We have very few abnormal operation conditions, or incidents, or near misses.
We don’t have a lot of those things to look at and learn from. For us to really continue to improve performance, we’re going to have to share it so that we can all move together. We’re not going to have enough in our own operations oftentimes that we can learn from them.
Mary: That’s right. Also, with the safety management systems that the industry is embracing and implementing, this is another component to that. We know that the systems we’re trying to implement look at people, skill sets, training. We know it looks at tools, and we’re evaluating procedures and processes all in an effort to be even safer than the industry already is.
That component about information sharing and safe harbor will be the other key component to a very effective safety management system. Like we talked about earlier, that airline industry, the chemical industry, the nuclear industry, when they implemented safety management systems, it really, once they began sharing near misses and more about the incidents that didn’t hit the headlines, that’s when you really saw a big impact in safety.
Russel: I think we’ll see the same thing in pipelining. I know that at AGA and the gas control committee, there have been conversations about how do we get more lessons learned that we can share and use to improve performance. It’s actually quite a difficult subject. It’s quite a difficult subject.
Mary: That’s right. It’s very complex. When we talk about general pipeline safety, then you break it down between “Are we talking about liquids, are we talking about gas transportation pipelines, are we talking about distribution lines, are we talking about metering, and are we talking about storage fields?” It is just complex and broad.
Russel: You’re going to have to get safe harbor all the way down to the itty bitty details like how are you implementing your alarm management program between how you’re setting up your alarms in your field equipment and your SCADA system, and how are you analyzing and managing them.
Mary: That’s correct.
Russel: We’ve got a ways to go to share at that level of detail, but that’s where you’re really going to see the improvements and the opportunities I think.
Mary: I agree. I can give a hard example. Several years ago when I was responsible for gas design, I worked for a company. We had an over-pressurization. It was a setup where the gas regulator was working and then the monitor downstream kicked in, and there was no telemetry between those two components.
We didn’t know that the monitor had taken over and that the worker had failed. There was no protection there. It was operating. There was no incident until one of the employees went out there and said, “Now wait a minute. That monitor is at a higher pressure than we want it to be.” It wasn’t an out of compliance, but it was a failure.
That would be the kind of example where you’d want to share that with others in the industry to say, “Look, when you set your pressure monitoring in between your worker and your monitor, you want to make sure you’ve got enough cover in there that, if it kicks in, you’re safe.” These are the kinds of examples.
Russel: That’s a really excellent and specific example of the kind of thing you’d want to share.
Mary: I can give you another one, too, and these are going to be hypotheticals because we don’t have safe harbor, Russel.
Another company I worked for, we had a failure on a pipeline. Fortunately, no one got injured, so it didn’t hit the headline. There was a fire, burned some property, but no one got hurt. It was one of those where there was overburden on a pipeline, extreme overburden.
The patrolling of the line had shown that someone was dumping concrete blocks over the top of the pipeline. Eventually, the pipeline gave way and released gas, which caused a fire. Like I said, no one got hurt.
That example about when you’re patrolling a line, and you see overburden, and it gets turned in by the patroller, these corrective actions to relieve the overburden would have prevented the release and prevented the fire. No one knows about that. It’s written in the training books.
These things are happening while we’re all doing our integrity management work, we’re cutting out sections, we’re piecing things together to fix anomalies.
Russel: This is actually a topic that I can get passionate about because I think one of the big challenges we have when you look at training and qualifications, procedures and tools, that we use to operate these pipelines is how do we facilitate communication and get it from the right people to the right people quickly and effectively. Said another way, how do you cut through the noise.
Mary: In fact, that example I just gave, that was several years ago. I was at an AGA meeting a couple months after it, and I happened to be talking to one of my colleagues in the industry about that.
That colleague said, “I’m going back from this conference, and I’m going to add that to my risk register on my transmission integrity management plan because I don’t think we have it.” I said, “Good idea.”
Russel: That’s the kind of thing you’d want the entire industry to do. It’s another good example of why safe harbor’s important. Let’s assume we’re in the future and we have safe harbor, how’s that going to impact training and qualification?
Mary: Let’s talk about another hard example, and I’ll lead to training and qualifications.
In the ’50s and ’60s, it was common practice, because that was pre-regulation for distribution, it was common practice to join pipe using fittings that were mechanical, mechanical fittings. In areas where there’s frost, frost goes in, frost goes out, ratchets in, ratchets out, and so some of these fittings would back out. The screws would back out.
If we found those kinds of fittings today in the field, a lot of procedures today say cut it out. Everyone’s under a lot of pressure financially these days. Procedurally what you would want is if you’ve got new people coming in the industry, you want to make sure they know and they are trained that these fittings are out there, and if you see them and you find them, you got to cut them out.
The kinds of things that failures that could be happening today really need to be incorporated into training and qualification for the skill sets that are needed in all of the technicians that work on the gas systems now. The one I just gave is one of thousands of examples.
Russel: We’ve talked about this on other podcasts as we’ve been talking a lot about training in the last dozen episodes or so, about the need to train for abnormal operating conditions versus normal operating conditions. What near-misses do and what safe harbor does is it increases the inventory of abnormal operating conditions you can train for.
Mary: That’s right. We look at it in the industry and at the associations, not just AGA but INGAA and others, and we look at it like safe harbor would open up a whole new dialogue that we haven’t been able to have formally with the regulators. I think the regulators even want safe harbor.
This would open up the dialogue so that we can actually get at those issues that we’re not discussing and have a whole new learning opportunity.
Russel: There’s actually a whole conversation that just spun off in my head as you were saying that, Mary, about how that would impact operators and individuals that have never seen these kinds of issues, just knowing that they’re out there and they’re a possibility.
Mary: The fact that our industry, many people, Russel, like you and me, we’re aging out. We’re getting to the end. There’s new people coming in. I’m not even talking knowledge transfer. I’m talking about safe harbor, how we could say, “Look, we had this near miss incident so watch out for that.”
Other utilities that maybe they’re newer utilities and they have newer teams and newer staff, they need to learn from all of these things that we’re finding.
Russel: Safe harbor creates a vehicle to capture that and curate it.
Mary: In a systemized, formalized way.
Russel: Exactly. Exactly. How would safe harbor impact procedures and tools that we use to do our jobs as pipeliners?
Mary: Like we’ve been talking about, safe harbor would allow you to have the discussion about using a tool for the wrong application. Those kinds of things happen, and they can have disastrous results.
If we had the open forum, we could even have the vendors that produce the tools and training on there where we could say, “Look, your procedure that went with your tool, we followed it, and this happened.” Then we could have an open forum, where I say, “Thanks. Now, I can go back and modify my owner’s manual if you will.”
Russel: Without that becoming a punitive or legal conversation, it becomes a performance and improvement conversation.
Mary: Right. All associations like AGA, like APGA, and INGAA, and others, we all say antitrust, can’t talk about vendors, can’t talk about pricing. I’m not trying to get into antitrust rules here. I’m just saying in a safe harbor, if we cover these things, then there’d be no retribution.
Russel: It does point out though how complex doing an effective safe harbor actually is and how many things it actually touches in terms of the various relationships or supply arrangements and so forth in the industry.
Mary: The pipeline industry is very, very safe as you mentioned earlier, and there’s a lot of data on that. A safe harbor would allow us to take it even up another notch with our safety management systems. That would be the goal.
Russel: How do the boots on the ground help with an activity like advocating for safe harbor? How do we as an industry support having this happen?
Mary: We’re working through language. Like I said with COVID and the other things that we’re dealing with right now, it’s been a little bit tabled. We will be getting back to that here shortly. In pipeline safety reauthorization, we need safe harbor language in there.
That has been proposed over the last year, but right now, reauthorization is not moving as fast as we would all like. We are operating on the last round of reauthorization.
We need that legislation. We need that language as the working group had recommended. We need statutory change so that we can actually share, just like the airline industry did and the chemical and nuclear industry did.
Once we get that, we can begin sharing, but we need to move that legislation. I did want to make another comment too, Russel. When you say boots on the ground, I think you meant how do we make this happen, but there’s another big component to this.
For safe harbor to work, we need the physical boots on the ground, in the ditches, and in the field to have a good solid forum for bringing into the conversation what they see out in the field that are near misses.
Russel: That’s really what I was driving at, Mary, is that that’s where the data comes from is the folks in the ditch, right?
Mary: Right. It needs to be easy for them to submit their ideas. If brilliant engineers like me give them some awful system that requires them to bang on 80 fields off their field laptop, it’s not going to happen because they’re trying to get the job done. We have to build systems that make it simple for them to say, “Look, I had a near miss, and I think somebody should talk about this.”
There are many, many utilities that are putting in what we all like to call a corrective action programs and make it easy for employees in the field either on their phone or on their laptop to just say look, I had a near miss. They populate just a few fields, and it gets in the hopper for flushing out.
Those are the kinds of examples where we’re really going to be hearing about tools, and procedures, and near misses that can help us move safety forward. We in the industry are calling it corrective action programs, those easy to use systems for reporting findings that may recommend a procedure change, or a tool change, or a skill set training issue.
Russel: There’s really a whole process around that. Early in my career, and I got into this when I was in the military. I’ve read pretty much everything that Deming had wrote about total quality management. There’s an aspect in that in what we’re doing in pipeline safety.
The idea that the people closest to the work are the ones that are discovering the things that need to be looked at. They’re actually mining for the opportunities to improve and then collaborating with those that are analyzing and figuring out how to make the improvements. That mining activity’s critical.
Mary: Right. That dialogue has to be transparent, clear, and encouraged without retribution. We talk about safe harbor for companies on this podcast, but it also frankly drives all the way down to the employee in the field needs to feel able to convey something’s unsafe in an operating procedure that maybe management put together.
Russel: It’s even can be more subtle than that. It’s not necessarily that it’s unsafe. It’s just that I’m wondering about this. I think somebody ought to look at it. It could be as simple as that.
Mary: Could be efficiency, yeah.
Russel: I would also say it’s whoever’s working. That’s also your vendors and your contractors as well.
Mary: That’s right, anyone touching the pipeline and any tool or procedure touching the pipelines.
Russel: Exactly. We’re coming to the end of the conversation, Mary. Is there anything you’d like to say that, as here’s the key takeaway, here’s what you’d like for pipeliners to know about safe harbor?
Mary: Yes. If we can get this safe harbor language written statutorily so that utilities and pipeline companies can bring forth these issues, we will see another step change improvement in pipeline safety. We probably will get more efficiency. Safety and efficiency makes everyone happy, all stakeholders.
The bottom line is we need to move like the other industries have moved and incorporate safe harbor so that our safety management systems include that key component of information sharing.
Russel: Awesome. Thanks for joining us on the Pipeliners Podcast, and thanks for joining the conversation.
Mary: Thanks, Russel.
Russel: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode of the Pipeliners Podcast and our conversation with Mary Palkovich.
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Transcription by CastingWords