This week’s Pipeliners Podcast episode features Andrew Lu of the American Gas Association (AGA) previewing the 2021 AGA Operations Conference & Biennial Exhibition & Fall Committee Meetings.
In this episode, you will learn more about why you should attend the AGA Fall conference this October in Florida, the protocols that AGA is following to consider the health and safety of everyone in attendance, the opportunity to learn from presentations and committee meetings on key natural gas topics, some of the events taking place during the week, and more topics.
AGA 2021 Fall Operations Conference: Show Notes, Links, and Insider Terms
- Andrew Lu is Vice President, Operations & Engineering Services for AGA. Connect with Andrew through the AGA website.
- 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 2021 AGA Operations Conference & Biennial Exhibition & Fall Committee Meetings is scheduled for October 4-8 in Kissimmee, Florida at the Gaylord Palms hotel. Register online.
- Karen Harbert is the President and CEO of AGA. Karen assumed the leadership role in April 2019. Karen has significant energy industry and policy expertise from a variety of leadership roles in Washington, D.C., including previously serving as president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute.
AGA 2021 Fall Operations Conference: Full Episode Transcript
Russel Treat: Welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast, episode 193, sponsored by ROSEN, the global leader in cutting-edge solutions across all areas of the integrity process chain, providing operators the data they need to make the best Integrity Management decisions. Find out more about ROSEN at ROSEN-Group.com.
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.
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This week, Andrew Lu, Vice President of Operations and Engineering Services at the American Gas Association, is joining us to talk about the upcoming Operations Conference and Bi-Annual Exhibition coming in October.
This one’s a little different than what we typically do, but as this is one of the first major pipeline conferences following the pandemic, so I thought it was a good topic to talk about. I figured people would want to know. Andrew, welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast.
Andrew Lu: Thank you, Russel. I have to say it’s a real treat to be on the program.
Russel: [laughs] Well, you’re the first person in my life who’s ever said that, Andrew. Could you imagine?
Andrew: [laughs] I think you are teasing me a little bit. I know you get that all the time, but I couldn’t resist.
Russel: Fair enough. Before we dive in, first, I want to just say thank you for agreeing to do this on short notice. I’m really excited to talk about the upcoming AGA Conference and all of that. But before we get into all that, could you tell me a little bit about your background and how you ended up in your current position with AGA?
Andrew: Sure. After college, I worked for Consumers Energy in Michigan for eight years. I held a variety of roles, primarily, in engineering design and gas construction for contract crews as well as gas company crews.
While in Michigan, I got engaged. Shortly thereafter, I was told by her that the plan was for us to move to Washington, D.C. Luckily for me, I was given an opportunity to work for AGA, which was initially a loaned employee arrangement. But then, it evolved into a permanent position over time.
Here I am. Almost 20 years later and I’m still at AGA, which has been a real blessing. I’m just very, very fortunate to work in this industry and happy to have this opportunity to speak about our conference.
I’d also like to give a shout-out to AGA, which has been recognized as a top 100 employer by The Washington Post for eight years running now. It’s a really great place to work, and I wanted to put a plug in for that.
Russel: Sure. Maybe the best place to start here is what is the AGA Operations Conference? I think a lot of people have heard about AGA in our business, and a lot of people know about the Operations Conference, but my experience being involved with it for a few years is it’s really a lot more than just a conference. Maybe you could talk to that a little bit.
Andrew: Absolutely. Simply put, it’s our natural gas industry’s annual showcase event that features over 100 technical presentations for two and a half days.
The conference attracts all kinds of professionals who work in the natural gas industry, safety specialists, gas controllers, engineers, integrity management people, meter and pressure regulation, corrosion specialists, and the list just goes on.
The conference attracts operators, consultants, contractors, material and service providers, anybody who has any interest in the natural gas industry. As far as the program goes, it’s a blend of case studies, regulatory updates, good practice sharing, and lessons learned in using new tools, equipment, software, new work management systems.
It’s also a celebration of companies and individuals who have earned an industry award that we present in our general session. I have to say this part is like our version of the Academy Awards.
Finally, I’d say it feels like a big celebration. It’s a celebration of our industry’s commitment to serve the communities who rely on this essential energy for cooking, for hot water, for keeping their homes warm, and everything else that runs on natural gas.
Russel: My experience with the conference is that when I first went, I went for the conference. I’d go to the papers and find the folks that presented and maybe quiz them a little bit. Then I’d go to the trade show. I’d walk. I’d talk to the vendors and all that, the normal thing.
I’ve got to tell you. The real value is in the committee meetings the days before the actual conference. I’ve been involved in various measurement committees over the years. I’ve been involved, more recently, in the gas control committee.
I find that collaboration and the openness of those conversations and the very specific, technical nature of those conversations to be extremely helpful in terms of becoming more of a pipeline professional, if you will. How many committees are actually involved in AGA and are meeting in advance of the operations conference?
Andrew: We have 16 technical committees that meet in conjunction with the conference. You’re exactly right. They meet during the two days prior to the conference. They begin Monday morning. The program is designed by our technical committees. The sessions in the program have all been selected by the technical committees with a bit of input from AGA staff.
We have six or seven concurrent sessions throughout the day. Each session is about 45 minutes in length. It’s either a formal presentation or orchestrated as a panel discussion. The presentations in the program are intended to educate the audience, obviously, in a subject matter and to also share information that can be beneficial to them in some fashion.
Personally, I think the most compelling presentations are those that recount an incident or an event that occurred, companies that can share lessons learned from a pipeline incident or an employee injury that occurred. Those presentations really resonate with the audience, Russel.
Russel: Yeah, that’s certainly my experience, Andrew, for sure. When I’ve been in the gas control committee and they talk about specific events or specific operating conditions, they really are very open and very forthcoming about the details of that. Everybody’s interested in what was your experience with this issue or problem.
We don’t have a lot of opportunities to do that in our industry. This is one of those few opportunities. I go with a notepad in hand. I’m asking questions. I’m trying to really understand what are the problems and how can we come up with solutions to help with that.
Andrew: Absolutely. The word “collaboration” is something that is an accurate term in capturing the spirit of our committee meetings as well as our conference. I know we’re bouncing between the two. I’d say the committee meetings are more conversation-based. That is how I would describe it. Typically, the seating is in a U or some sort of a hollow square. There are presentations in the committee meetings, but those presentations are not the entirety of the committee meetings. The committees will work on projects.
There’s also time for, I’ll say, more informal types of sharing rather than the conference program, which is essentially a symposium type of event where somebody is standing up, perhaps behind a podium, and they have a very formal presentation that has been prepared.
Again, the committee meetings are a little more free-flowing. Obviously, we have agendas that provide detail on what the content of the meeting will be. As you know, having been there before, there’s more of an opportunity to ask questions, informal sharing, again, hearing updates from different folks on initiatives that are important to that particular committee, and getting an AGA update and also presentations from perhaps AGA staff on pipeline safety regulatory matters or other things that we’re working on.
Russel: I think that’s the other thing that happens in the committee’s as well as the AGA staff is actively going around and saying, “Hey, here’s some things that you need to be thinking about because they’re coming up on our radar. If they’re on our radar, they’re going to be on your radar,” that kind of thing.
I know the last AGA Committee Meeting I went to, which was probably spring of 2019, there was a lot of conversation going on about cybersecurity in the gas control world. Everybody had an introduction to it, but certainly, that was prophetic, if you will, in terms of where we are now related to cybersecurity, and that is an issue for pipeline operators.
Andrew: Definitely hot issues, issues that are top of mind for operators. Those attract a lot of roundtable discussions, a lot of dialogue. The program, again, getting back to that as far as how it’s managed, there’s something for everyone no matter what your position is in your company.
Our industry is so broad, and the sessions vary in subject matter. Similar to our technical committees, we have presentations in safety, pipe joining, leak survey, OQ, LNG, inline inspections, AMR [Automated Meter Reading], workforce development. It just goes on and on. As a gas industry professional, I like to think that there’s something for everyone.
You can learn just by listening in to a session where it may not be something that is very strictly tied to your current responsibilities, but as you know, people change jobs. They change roles in their own organization.
One day, somebody might be in gas control, but another day, they might be in training. It’s really beneficial to obviously absorb and hear about issues and other things going on that are outside your direct responsibility.
Russel: I’ve even found myself going to sessions featuring completely different disciplines, but for some reason, it was related like looking at a conversation on pressure cycling and trying to understand how that impacts the control room we’re looking at, going into a session on shut off valves and such as that, which is more of operations technical committee issue, that has implications elsewhere.
I have developed the discipline that when I go to the conference, I spend all the time in the committee meetings and get deep into the conversation. I find that I learn more by the questions that are being asked than I do by the materials being presented.
The conference itself, my discipline there is more I get up in the morning, I get the conference program, I sit down with a cup of coffee, and I’m like, “Okay, where am I going to be today?” It never fails.
I can never get to everything that I want to get to. There’s just too much content, and you got to pick the things that you think are going to provide the most value for you on that day because it’s a lot. A lot of material is being presented. It’s a lot.
Andrew: It is. I think sometimes, life is full of tough choices. Sometimes, you have two sessions going on at the same time. You’re like, “Man, I really want to go to both of those very badly,” and obviously, you have to choose one. We do the best we can at AGA. When we prepare the program, we do take a hard look at the topics so that…
I’ll say, for example, fusion or pipe joining, and we’ll say, “You know what? These two presentations really should not be going on at the same time, because they’re sort of similar in subject matter, somewhat similar.” We try to stagger that and balance it out.
Again, safety, personal safety. Some people are really, really into worker safety initiatives. Obviously, we have a track that’s dedicated to safety. The idea is that we won’t have presentations going on at the same time that would be somewhat competing with one another in drawing the same audience.
Russel: That sounds easy, but it’s not 100 percent possible, right?
Andrew: Exactly. There are a lot of factors involved including speakers perhaps leaving early or coming late. Obviously, people have busy schedules, and we’re trying to accommodate the speakers. There are a lot of factors involved when we figure out what times people are speaking.
I would like to also mention before I forget that the general session, which is really an important part of our conference week. That’s held on Wednesday morning. I compare it to our State of the Union Address, if you will, [laughs] in the natural gas industry.
In the general session, we hear from guest speakers including our President and CEO, Karen Harbert. We also usually have remarks from our board chairperson, who leads the gas industry and provides leadership to AGA’s activities throughout the year. We administer industry awards during the general session where everyone is together.
That’s an important part as to celebrate those companies who have excelled in safety as well as those individuals who deserve recognition for an accomplishment that is special. That general session lasts about two hours, and then we break off into our technical sessions.
Russel: I would concur. I find the whole state of the industry, state of the business presentation always super informative, and it never fails that there’s something there that is unique or different, or I wasn’t thinking about that changes my perspective about what’s up and what’s important at this moment in time.
Actually, speaking of that, I want to pivot a little bit. Historically, this conference has been in the spring. This one’s in the fall. As far as I’m aware, this is the first major industry conference post-pandemic. What are you guys doing to address the whole reality of COVID, the continuing threat, and uncertainty around all of that?
Andrew: Thank you so much for asking me that, Russel. Clearly, things will be different than they were pre-COVID. Of course, AGA will follow all guidance from the CDC for large indoor gatherings, as well as any additional regulations imposed by local health officials in the county.
We’ll also follow whatever safety and health protocols that the Gaylord Resort is requiring for its meetings and for its guests. AGA has also reviewed ways we can help maintain social distancing and optimize cleaning protocols. It’s just a very, very strange time as you know.
I think if I had to summarize, I would say that we’re confident that our members will be respectful and sensitive to others knowing people have different levels of comfort. Just a whole level of tolerance and understanding and empathy is, I think, really important.
We know that it’ll be different. It’ll be strange, but we are figuring out everything as far as how the food will be served, how the breaks will be managed, the receptions, and we’re going to be very thoughtful about that.
Hopefully, fingers crossed here, it’s only about two months away, and we’re hopeful that the numbers will not spike and that we’ll be able to have the level of participation that we’re expecting.
Russel: I want to talk to this a little bit, Andrew. Maybe you can comment on what I’m saying. I made my last trip in December of 2019, and then I didn’t do any traveling. Until about six, maybe, eight weeks ago, I started traveling again.
The first trip I made was before the airport’s started to get full again. Then the next trip I made, all of a sudden the switch got turned down. Everybody was in the airport having to wear a mask and everybody on the airplane having to wear a mask is strange, but you get used to that pretty quickly.
Just personally, I’ve always thought that before the pandemic, if you’re going to get the flu, the most likely place you’re going to get it was on an airplane. I don’t know that that’s true. I’m just saying I felt that way. Frankly, I feel probably safer on the airplanes now than I ever have from that standpoint.
Then the other thing that’s interesting is the protocols in the hotels that I’ve been staying at are different. They’re not turning your room every day. They’re only turning your room when you make a request that it be turned so you don’t have people coming in your room as frequently, which frankly I prefer. From that standpoint, I’m not sure I really care if they don’t keep these protocols.
Andrew: You bring up some excellent points. I think that it is such a personal issue, and people have their own feelings and opinions about wearing a mask or not wearing a mask, or all those kinds of issues. It really, really is important for us, again, to understand that everyone has their own comfort level with what’s going on. It’ll definitely feel strange, I think, at first having this big meeting.
With all these people together, it’ll be a little bit strange at first, I think, but I have no doubt that once we all get together, it’s going to be a great celebration. People miss the camaraderie. I know I do. I keep hearing it from our members that people miss being together and miss the conversation and the interaction. They miss seeing friends and colleagues throughout the industry.
Again, I know it’ll feel a little bit odd at first just because we’ve all been in lockdown mode since March last year, but I’m really, really confident and hopeful that circumstances won’t change and that we’ll be able to put on this awesome event for the industry.
A lot of companies I know have travel restrictions in place now. Some are being lifted. I think it’s a very fluid situation. As you know, Russel, company policies are changing daily, I keep hearing it.
Russel: I hate to be in an HR group trying to set policy around all this. You’ve got different rules in every state. You’ve got the guidance changing out of the CDC almost daily. You’ve got different rules by community, by facility. It’s a very, very difficult situation.
Andrew: Absolutely, absolutely. In particular, it’s just such a confusing time. It’s so confusing. Like you said, the information is changing all the time. It’s a very confusing time.
Russel: Andrew, that being said, I have to say that I agree with you. Certainly, what I’m finding is people are so glad that when you come and visit, they’re so hungry to get back to working out of our relationships. There’s just a real hunger for that. I certainly am finding that. The first trip I made to go see a customer, I got giddy. [laughs] It was like a little schoolgirl. I got all excited.
Then the other part that happened is — I used to travel almost every week — I sat down, I went to go pack my suitcase, and I’m like, “Wait a minute. I have to actually stop and think about this now.” [laughs] I’m sure you can relate to that.
Andrew: Absolutely. I always say, Russel, no matter how much you love your family, at a certain point, it’s just too much time together. You get tired of seeing the same beautiful faces. It’s like, “Okay, I need to mix it up a little bit here.” I don’t know about you, but I’m so tired of seeing my own face on Zoom and Teams calls. Man, I’ve had enough. I just am so tired of looking at my own old face.
Russel: Just the whole human contact thing, just being able to shake somebody’s hand and look them in the eye. Oh, man. We are social animals. I’m certainly a social animal. My wife, on the other hand, is probably just perfectly happy staying at home [laughs] and not seeing anybody. She and I are different that way.
Look, I want to say this. I really want to commend AGA for being committed to putting this event on and by doing all the extra work and dealing with what I’m sure is a lot of grief, aggravation, and anxiety about doing all this.
Personally, I would encourage you guys just to see it through. There’s no telling what the turnout will be. I’ve heard some preliminary reports that the turnout has been more than what you guys anticipated.
Andrew: As we speak, we have 1,271 registrants, which is a good number. We’re hoping to get 2,000 by the time October rolls around. We have over 200 exhibitors. I do want to talk about the exhibition momentarily. We are just very happy with the registration count right at this point and hoping for more.
Russel: How does that compare with previous years?
Andrew: I think it’s comparable. It’s a little bit hard to compare year to year because the exhibition is held every other year. It’s not annual. It’s a bi-annual event for us. That obviously increases our numbers. I’d say that we’re more or less pretty close to being where we are two months out in comparing to past few years where we had the exhibition.
Russel: I find that super encouraging, Andrew. I find that super encouraging, to know that that’s the strength of the response.
Andrew: Again, what you referenced earlier, companies and individuals are just hungry for information. We know that relationships drive our industry, which is no different than other industries, where it’s all about relationships. Obviously, there’s the educational component with our conference. Relationships are just so important. It’s hard to do that virtually, exclusively.
Russel: It’s also hard to learn. It’s hard to learn and stay current with the state of the art without having conversation with your peers. Really, there’s as much that happens in the morning over coffee as there is the actual exhibits or in the presentations or wherever else. It’s all in the conversation, where we learn.
You never know when you’re going to have a problem and need to call somebody and say, “Hey, what have you all done with this.” You go to AGA, you go to these conferences to build those relationships so you have those resources available to you.
Andrew: Absolutely. You said it so well. AGA, it’s not just about the meetings themselves. It’s really about the whole experience for the week. In that regard, we definitely want to make the week a memorable experience for everybody who attends. It’s not just about the meetings. We actually have activities that we plan.
We have a community service event that happens on Sunday before the meetings begin. We take great pride in giving back to the communities that are hosting our conference week by doing something to help out. In the past, we’ve built bicycles. We’ve built prosthetic hands. We’ve cleaned up parks. We’ve prepared and served food in a soup kitchen. We’ve also worked in Orlando Amusement Park for severely sick kids. It’s called Give Kids The World. It’s a really, really special place.
That enables us as AGA staff to spend time with our members, because during the week, we’re running around so much that we often don’t get a chance to talk and spend time with the folks that we work with.
In addition, we have a boot camp and a 5K run/walk that are both designed to get people active and moving. Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention there’s a little bit of eating and a little bit drinking throughout the week.
Russel: There’s more of that than going on the 5K run, I imagine.
Andrew: The receptions that AGA provides are not the only opportunities to eat and drink. There’s so much going on, obviously, later at night. A lot of our associate members provide hospitality events, and they’re just really, really great ways to connect with people and meet new people.
Russel: Let’s talk about the exhibition. I’ve always wondered, why is the exhibition every other year and not every year?
Andrew: That’s a great question. I would say it boils down to the amount of work involved in terms of preparing and staging that event. It really isn’t practical to have it every year. We’ve heard from our associate members that they would prefer to keep it on a two-year cycle. In a lot of ways, that just makes it more special, is that it’s only held once every two years.
We’ve really thought, at some point, of maybe making an annual event, but our associate members have told us that they believe that every two years is the best way to go. The numbers really prove that out. We have great attendance, great participation.
Again, if you haven’t been to the exhibition, I’d encourage you to go. For our listeners, it’s hard to describe. You just walk on this floor, and there’s 200 plus booths and all these tabletop displays.
Whether it’s leak survey equipment, or pigging equipment, or personal protective gear, or whatever it is, pipe manufacturers, metering manufacturers, they’re there. Anybody who’s got any product or service that’s used by natural gas utilities and pipeline operators, they’re there showing their goods and their services.
There’s a lot of free stuff, too. Who doesn’t like free stuff? They give out great goodie bags and tchotchkes. There’s some pretty cool stuff that’s given away and, obviously, just learning. Walking from booth to booth is just such a great opportunity to learn more about the industry.
Russel: Every year I go to the exhibition, I make a deliberate choice to walk the entire floor and have a look at every single booth. It never fails that there’s three to six things that I find that I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I had no idea they had one of those.” It’s always fascinating to me what you learn, because if there’s some new doodad, or tool, or something, it’ll be there.
Andrew: Absolutely. Again for new people and people that have been in the industry 30, 40 years, there’s always something new to learn. That’s what’s cool about our industry, is that it’s changing. It’s always changing. It’s always evolving. What a great opportunity, again, to be able to put your hands on some of this equipment and really, really learn about how work gets done in the field.
The exhibitors are so, so eager to talk about their company’s products and services and share their knowledge about how stuff can get done better, more efficiently, safer. Again, lots of good stuff that’s given away for people who have room in their suitcases to bring some stuff back to their families. I got to tell you. Sometimes, I bring stuff back when my kids were little. They were happy to get some of this stuff that I bring back. You get lots of, again, gas industry bling.
Russel: No doubt.
Andrew: One more thing before I forget, Russel, I wanted to give a shout-out to our sponsors. We are so fortunate at AGA that we have the support from some really, really great organizations who provide critical services, products, and software to our industry. Without their support, I can tell you the registration costs would be a whole lot higher.
Those companies are just really, really supportive of the operators in the industry. We appreciate them so much at AGA.
Russel: Listen, I think all this is awesome. Again, I really want to commend AGA for being committed and going first, if you will, following the pandemic plowing ground for others. I, for one, am very much looking forward to it. I’m going to be doing something at AGA for the first time.
I actually plan to record a podcast from the exhibit hall on the afternoon that we’re doing the exhibits. I hope to coordinate that with some of the people that are attending the committee meetings and do what are they talking about in the committee’s podcast thing. We’ll see how that goes. That’ll be a little new and different for me. I’m pushing the envelope in that way. I’m looking forward to that.
Andrew: I think it’s a great idea. I look forward to seeing you there and definitely will encourage folks to stop by and to visit with you on your podcast. I don’t know how many people you can accommodate on that thing, but don’t be surprised if you get a lot of interest from our members. I think that’s a real cool thing to do.
Again, I want to thank you so much for giving us the opportunity to talk about our event. We’re just so excited to reconnect and see everybody again. I can’t wait for October 4th to roll around.
Russel: Thanks for that, Andrew. This is not the type of thing that I typically do. Usually, I’m trying to do something that’s more technical or educational, but I just think that what you guys are doing with opening up the big conference, following the pandemic, is just so important. It’s the kind of thing that the listeners will want to know about and hear about.
I encourage everybody to consider going. Clearly, everyone needs to make their own choice, given how they perceive the risks and all of that. I, for one, plan to be seeing everybody there.
Andrew: I look forward to seeing you, and we’ll share a beverage together. How’s that sound, Russel?
Russel: I like that. I’m down. I’m ready. Let’s go. [laughs]
Andrew: All right. Take care. Thank you very much.
Russel: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode of the Pipeliners Podcast and our conversation with Andrew. Just a reminder before you go, you should register to win our customized Pipeliners Podcast YETI tumbler. Simply visit pipelinepodcastnetwork.com/win to enter yourself in the drawing.
Russel: If you have ideas, questions, or topics you’d be interested in, please let me know on the Contact Us page at pipelinepodcastnetwork.com or reach out to me on LinkedIn. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you next week.
Transcription by CastingWords