This week’s Pipeliners Podcast episode features Chris Hoidal of Babst Calland discussing his experiences dealing with a multitude of different pipeline incidents and how it shaped the way he and his staff conducted inspections as well as the importance of communication with the public and media and properly handling public outrage.
In this episode, you will learn about the differences between how a good and bad operator responds to the public following an incident, why having a continuous presence in the community is vital for the relationship between the industry and the public, and how to effectively communicate with them.
Pipeline Incidents from an Inspector’s Perspective Show Notes, Links, and Insider Terms:
- Chris Hoidal is the strategic advisor to clients throughout the United States on the regulation of transportation pipelines, LNG facilities, and other regulated energy facilities at Babst Calland. As a non-attorney engineer and an expert in federal pipeline safety regulations, Chris guides industry stakeholders seeking to improve regulatory compliance and safety performance. Connect with Chris on LinkedIn.
- Babst Calland’s Energy and Natural Resources attorneys work collaboratively across legal disciplines to serve the needs of energy companies across the United States. Based in Washington, D.C., the firm’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety practice represents clients on all types of pipeline safety and hazardous materials transportation matters.
- The Oil Pollution Act (OPA) of 1990 streamlined and strengthened EPA’s ability to prevent and respond to catastrophic oil spills. A trust fund financed by a tax on oil is available to clean up spills when the responsible party is incapable or unwilling to do so. The OPA requires oil storage facilities and vessels to submit to the Federal government plans detailing how they will respond to large discharges.
- PHMSA (Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) 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.
- EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is an independent organization within the federal U.S. government designed to take measures to protect people and the environment.
- 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.
- National Response Center (NRC) is a part of the federally established National Response System and staffed 24 hours a day by the U.S. Coast Guard. It is the designated federal point of contact for reporting all oil, chemical, radiological, biological and etiological discharges into the environment, anywhere in the United States and its territories.
- RTUs (Remote Telemetry Units) are electronic devices placed in the field. RTUs enable remote automation by communicating data back to the facility and taking specific action after receiving input from the facility.
- Responding to Community Outrage by Peter Sanman
Pipeline Incidents from an Inspector’s Perspective Full Episode Transcript:
Russel Treat: Welcome to The Pipeliners Podcast, episode 257, sponsored by Gas Certification Institute, providing standard operating procedures, training, and software tools for custody transfer measurement and field operations professionals. Find out more about GCI at gascertification.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 the appreciation, we give away a customized YETI tumbler to one listener every episode. This week, our winner is Paul Ruggiero with South Jersey Gas. Congratulations, Paul. Your YETI is on its way. To learn how you can win this signature prize, stick around until the end of the episode.
This week, Chris Hoidal with Babst Calland joins us to talk about pipeline incidents from an inspector’s viewpoint. Chris, welcome to The Pipeliners Podcast.
Chris Hoidal: Welcome. How are you?
Russel: I’m doing very good, very glad to have you. For the listeners’ benefit, Chris was telling me this is his first time ever to be a guest on a podcast, so no pressure, Chris.
Chris: Why, thanks, and there’s none. There’s a lot, actually. [laughs]
Russel: Well, we’ll get right on passed that. Before we dive in, if you would, tell the listeners a little bit about your background, what you’ve done, what you’re doing now, and how you got into pipelining.
Chris: Sure. I’m a civil engineer. I went the route of going as a consulting engineer for about 10 years, and then I joined the US Department of Transportation back in 1990, and got started with reviewing and approving oil spill response plans right after the Oil Pollution Act was issued.
Then I became an inspector up in Alaska. Then 1998, I became regional director for the western region of PHMSA, and did that until 2018. Then I was working with the implementation of all the new regulations that are still coming out. Hopefully, we’re getting to the end of the pipeline as far as how many are still there.
Was working with headquarters, training the federal and state inspectors on how to inspect for the new regulations. Last year, I retired from the federal government after 32 years, joined Babst Calland as a technical consultant, and am still doing the same thing, trying to help operators stay in compliance.
It’s a lot more fun on this side, because I just don’t feel that that look of, do we really trust them or not?
Russel: [laughs] Well, the role is different. I think this is the first time I’ve had somebody on the podcast who’s spent most of their career as an inspector with PHMSA. I’ve had other people in leadership with PHMSA on the podcast, but I don’t think I’ve ever had somebody who’s had a long career in inspection.
This’ll be a very interesting perspective for the listeners. I think one of the reasons you find this more relaxed is, instead of looking for problems, you’re looking for solutions.
Chris: Exactly, yeah. Same end goal, but it’s more fun.
Russel: Yeah, sure. What I’d like to ask you first is tell us a little bit about what incidents you’ve been involved with, because the purpose of this conversation is to help people get educated about incidents and how to head them off, and how to respond to them, if you have them. What have you been involved with?
Chris: [sighs] I’m sure everybody’s seen “Forrest Gump.” I feel like the Forrest Gump of incidents. My first big incident that I was involved with was in Bellingham, Washington, then I was involved in an incident on the North Slope of Alaska in 2006, and the Yellowstone River in 2011.
Investigating San Bruno in 2010, multiple incidents in 2010 in Salt Lake City, and peripherally involved Aliso Canyon in 2015, and Santa Barbara in 2015, so yeah, I’ve been involved in a lot of incidents.
Russel: That’s a who’s who of the big incidents, right?
Chris: Exactly. The way I look at it is there must have been enough confidence with how PHMSA responded to those incidents and how the operator responded to those incidents, where they didn’t take the program away from PHMSA, the oversight program.
That actually was being considered back in the late ’90s. To take the thing from the DOT, give it to the EPA. How the regulators responded, and also how the operators responded, gave some credibility to both the industry and the regulator. I think that’s really important, I don’t want to dismiss that.
If the public does not see a strong regulator – a strong, effective, fair regulator – then they question whether or not, who’s watching, is the fox watching the hen house? Who’s actually overseeing the industry? I think it’s really important that a strong regulator’s important to the industry.
Russel: I’ve never heard that said that way before, Chris, but I think that’s absolutely right. The people who are holding the standard are an important part of the industry. We need people that are holding the standard. We do that as operators, but we also need outside third parties to hold it as well. I think it makes us better.
Chris: I remember sitting down with a pizza with the late Ted Stevens after a spill in the north slip of Alaska and was saying, “Hey, you guys need to get this right.” This is when I was with PHMSA. He goes, “You guys need to get this right, because we have no chance of opening up other places such as ANWR or the National Petroleum Reserve if we cannot show that we have learned from this incident, and there is a strong, fair regulator.”
I do remember him saying that to me, so I took that to heart.
Russel: I think that’s awesome. One of the questions I wanted to ask you – and we could probably talk about this for five minutes or five days, but probably 30 minutes is a better number – what have you learned around your experience from dealing with these incidents?
Chris: What have I learned? I’ve learned that what we call risk in the industry, probability versus consequence, is not the same risk that the public has. I learned this from a book, and if you guys haven’t read this, it’s an old, old book by Peter Sandman from I think 1992, ’93. It’s basically “Responding to Community Outrage.”
Phenomenal book. It’s posted on the Internet. It talks about the fact that dealing with community outrage, it’s hazard times outrage. It is not probability versus consequence. It’s hazard versus outrage, and how quickly you can deal with the public outrage is so important.
Russel: Wow, OK. That’s interesting. I’ve never heard that before, but it makes perfect sense. That resonates with me, because the public doesn’t care other than you put oil in my backyard or whatever it was. What they have is outrage.
Chris: Oh, they’re mad.
Russel: It’s legitimate, legitimate outrage.
Chris: I remember going into an event, and I was relatively new as a regional director. I went out there to say, “Hey, look how safe this industry is compared to cars and rail and even airlines. This is so safe.” That was probably the dumbest thing I ever did, because they don’t care. The incident’s already occurred.
Russel: “You weren’t safe in my backyard.”
Chris: Yeah, and what’s worse is they would say it. I had a person say this, “I chose to get in that car. I didn’t choose to have you in my backyard.” That was just an awakening moment. It’s like, “OK, OK.” Talking about numbers and statistics, that did not serve either me or, even more importantly, the operator, or the pipeline operator.
Their best solution was to say, “Hey, we’re going to do everything we can not to let this happen.” The public, they’re smart. They know that there’s a risk, but for you to tell them what that risk is in decimal points, they don’t even want to hear it. They feel like they’re being placated.
Russel: Yeah, well, I wouldn’t want to hear it, either. If I had an incident in my backyard, I’d want to know what you’re going to do to fix it, how completely you’re going to fix it, how committed are you to fixing it, and how quickly are you going to fix it? That’s what I’d want to know.
Chris: Without a doubt, yeah. Have a plan. Show that you’re on top of it.
Russel: Be honest. If you don’t have a plan, “We’re still assessing,” or whatever it is. It’s just, no, that makes sense to me. It’s interesting, Chris, I’ve done a lot of these podcasts now, and I talk about this frequently, about just how much I’ve learned.
I try to take one or two things out of every podcast. I think this idea of, when you have an incident, and you’re dealing with the public, where they are is outrage. What happened and how outraged I am, that is the measurement that matters.
Chris: In that outrage, sometimes, you just have to go up on stage – so does the pipeline president, and so does the regional manager – and just take it. You’re going to get up there. You’re going to get comments. You’re not going to satisfy them, but you have to listen to them.
That’s so key, that you be perceived – and you should be doing – as truly listening. If you think you’re going to go to a public meeting after an incident, and everybody’s going to be happy with your responses, whether you’re an operator or whether…It ain’t happening.
It’s not going to happen next month. It’s not going to happen six months after you’ve gone back into operation. There is no number, but I would say it seems like the outrage goes on for two or three years, no matter what you do, and you just have to be in it for the long haul.
Russel: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think that’s right. There’s a grieving process that happens for somebody that goes through an experience like that. They have to work through the grieving process. If you study that kind of stuff, if you do that kind of work, people will tell you that getting all the way through the grieving process takes about five years.
Chris: Oh, wow. I believe it. I believe it, because…
Russel: There’s a whole process it goes through. That’s what happens after an incident, is that you’re grieving. You’re grieving what you lost, whatever that is.
Chris: Especially if you’re the parent of a child or something like that, that’s going to go on for much longer.
Russel: Sure, absolutely. I think that’s awesome, and I like the fact that you so clearly distilled your takeaway. How does that experience with incidents, how did that affect your approach to doing inspections?
Chris: I personally – this is me – I would focus on the consequence side. When I said, I mean I would look at heavily populated areas, just like the regulations. I would focus on river crossings. I’d focus on parks. I knew, when I got a notification from the National Response Center, and it had the word “refuge” or “Yellowstone River” or “Prince William Sound,” it was going to gain traction.
I leaned into those harder, and I think the better companies did as well. As far as inspections, I personally would have my inspectors focus on those pipelines that posed a greater consequence, and make sure that the corrosion control in those areas of greater consequence – maybe, say, a river crossing – was perfect.
Or make sure that they protected that pipeline from scour. I was more from an inspection planning purpose, I would focus on the areas that had the biggest consequence. Same thing occurred even after the incident. I would lean in harder to those areas which would garner more media.
Russel: Did the incidents color in any way your take on where those consequences might be?
Chris: Without a doubt.
Russel: Talk to us a little bit about that, if you would.
Chris: I would focus on those areas where the impact could not be contained, where there was tidal influences, where there was strong currents, where it could flow into a water intake for a town, where it could go into the irrigation system for an agricultural area.
I’d have my guys focus on those areas. You hear about these spills that are massive, and not to besmirch North Dakota, but they would be in the middle of a farm field. It’d be a very large spill, and it would get very little public attention, and it would generate very little outrage.
You spill into the lake of the city park, yeah, people were all over the operator, and shortly thereafter, all over the regulator for not protecting them.
Russel: I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I’m trying to hear what you’re saying. If what you learned from incidents is its consequence and outrage, the way that affected your inspection approach is, where might the public have the greatest outrage?
Chris: Correct. Also, there were little things that came into play. I would look at where people seem to have a general understanding of the energy industry. Everybody thinks that, hey, people, there’s a lot of pipelines and a lot of refineries there.
Those were sometimes the toughest areas, because they were very well educated. They knew what should be done. Sometimes, just because you think it’s an energy-friendly state didn’t always bode well for the company, because they were also their worst critics. They ate their own. [laughs]
Russel: Yeah, again, it never ceases to amaze me when I listen to these things how my perspective shifts. You would think that, if I’m a pipeline superintendent, and there’s an issue in my backyard, that I’d have more empathy for the pipeline operator.
What you’re saying is the reality is that the superintendent’s going to know what that operator should have been doing and is going to have an opinion about that. Their outrage might actually be more, because that operator failed to do what they ought to do.
Chris: They would actually go in there and look at the work. I’ve had people call me up anonymously, and they’d be looking in the ditch and what somebody did on a repair, and I’d get a call as a regulator, saying, “Yeah, they put this clock spring wrap, but I know they’re repairing SCC, and this isn’t…”
They would talk about the repair methods. They had a stake in it. Even though they were industry friendly, that pipeline was in their backyard.
Russel: [laughs] That makes sense, but again, it’s one of those things that I never would have considered if we hadn’t had this conversation, that you might have more outrage in an energy friendly area, because they know what things ought to be getting done and what the expectations ought to be.
Chris: Let’s say they’re not even a pipeline expert. I would say one of the biggest things that could really help pipeline operators is have effective public awareness programs, because so many times, the public, once they know they have a pipeline there, and if they’re rational, they realize, “Hey, it’s for the community good, and it’s low risk,” having those extra eyes and ears saying, “Hey, backhoe operator putting in the drain tile, don’t go there, because I know there’s a pipeline there.”
Having meaningful public awareness, where they can act as the pipeline operators’ eyes and ears in extension, it really helps. After 9/11, everybody was saying, “Oh, no, people, we can’t let people know where these things are.” I would posit the fact that having people know where your pipeline is is more important than trying to hide where your pipeline is.
Russel: I’ll tell a little story about that. When I record, I usually record from my home office, which is on the front of my house. I’ve got windows, and I’m on a cul- de-sac. In the middle of the cul-de-sac, there’s a little green space. A couple of weeks ago, I was doing a podcast, and a backhoe crew drove up.
They rolled the backhoe off, and they were digging in the cul-de-sac. It was the landscaping guys replacing irrigation. I’m like, I didn’t see anybody mark anything out there, so I’m getting off the podcast, going out there, and I’m talking to the crew.
It’s like, “How deep are you guys digging? Where are you digging? Why’s this not marked?”
Chris: Did they stop?
Chris: It’s true.
Russel: Anyways, your point about doing these kinds of things around knowledgeable people, I’ve always said the best security system is noisy neighbors. That applies to pipelining, because pipelines have neighbors. Yeah, interesting.
Chris: That even goes to after an incident. I remember so many times, and this is on my government side. Initially, after an incident, we’d be out there, working with the pipeline operator to do point-to-point verifications, checking out RTUs, checking to make sure the valves work.
We were always told, “Don’t talk to the press. Don’t talk to the press.”
I think there’s a happy medium in there somewhere, where the public affairs people need to give the pipeline personnel a little bit of leeway of saying what they’re doing. It’s like, “Hey, I’m out here. We’re running a device in the pipeline to look for defects.”
Don’t have to do anything more than that, but saying no comment, that doesn’t work very well, especially now that everybody has cell phones. They’re recording. I remember one time being out on a site, and I was working side by side with a pipeline operator.
We’re checking valves and the instrumentation, and it’s a fenced enclosure, where folks were bent over the valve. Then we look up, and there’s media and press. I felt like a caged animal at the zoo. They surrounded the fence, and they’re peppering you with questions.
I finally said, “We’re checking the instrumentation to make sure it’s accurate, and make sure they can see it in the control room.” I said, “If you have any other questions, call this person.” I got chewed up one side and down the other. I said, “What am I supposed to do, say no comment?” They said, “Yes.”
You know what? They changed. It actually worked out better that both the operator was seen being out there, the regulator being seen being out there. You can’t hide facts. People knew what we were doing.
Russel: It’s interesting, and it’d be interesting to bring on a public awareness, an incident response communication expert into this conversation, because I think they would agree with you. I think anybody who’s got direct experience – again, this is my opinion, I don’t necessarily have any research to support this – what I would say is that the nature of communications in this day and age is you can be ahead of the story, or you can be behind the story. What you cannot do is ignore the story or bury the story.
Chris: I like that. That’s true, that’s true.
Russel: When a bunch of people roll up, there’s cameras, and they’re asking questions, the best thing you can do is give a thoughtful, honest answer.
Chris: Don’t speculate.
Russel: The worst thing you can do is ignore them or not give them any answer.
Chris: Say, “No comment.”
Russel: Or say, “No comment.” Saying, “No comment” is worse, like, “I’m giving you no answer,” but only worse.
Russel: Interesting. This tees up the next question I wanted to ask you, Chris, and that is what makes a good versus a bad operator? Let’s talk about first what makes a good versus a bad operator prior to there being an incident, like as a normal course of business.
Chris: I would say the amount of outreach they do ahead of time. Knowing the people that they may have to deal with in an incident ahead of time. You don’t want to be meeting the captain of the port or the on-scene coordinator in the middle of an accident.
You know what? The good thing is, on the liquid side, because you’re required to have drills and exercises, that’s usually occurring. I don’t know if that’s occurring as much on the gas side, even though there’s requirements for liaison work and public awareness.
I don’t know whether you’re having as many opportunities to actually meet the people that are going to be responding. I would say the better operators, they know their local fire department. I have seen it go as far as they sponsor things.
They’ll sponsor running races or bike races, saying, “Sponsored by Alyeska Pipeline.” I’m picking a name, because they used to sponsor a lot of things, running races, bike races, triathlons up in Alaska. Everybody knew about them. I don’t like to use names, but it’s a way of getting your name out there.
People realize you have assets in the area, and you’ll see bike trails sponsored by a pipeline operator. You’ll see things like that. Getting your name out there, sharing who you are. I’d say meaningful communications with anybody that may be materially involved in an incident. It’s hard, it’s hard.
Russel: It’s very hard. It’s extraordinarily hard. Again, I don’t think I’ve ever done an episode on that subject. I’ve certainly worked with operators and worked with control rooms and tried to help address that problem, so that, in every SCADA screen for every site, there was information for who are the contacts for first response, that kind of thing.
I’ve certainly worked with operators to try and implement a part of that solution. I wouldn’t presuppose to do all of it, but it’s very a complex thing, because you don’t have to be very big in scale at all before the complexity of understanding who’s the fire department, who’s the police department, who’s the sheriff, who’s the hospital, all that kind of stuff for everyone of your sites, and it changes.
It’s not like once you have it, you have it. It changes.
Chris: I’ve noticed both on the operator side and the regulator side, the incidents that seem to go best – if an incident could ever be assumed to go best, but – it’s where there’s a local presence.
If the inspector – let’s say the state or federal inspector – has a local presence, if the operator has a local presence in the community, even if they’re sitting in the PTA or the school board or coaching soccer, it’s funny how having a local presence is really important.
On the federal side, whenever we had an incident, I’ll roll my local inspector out there, because…No, first, we’d get somebody from headquarters, and they’d be the person that would represent the agency. Then I would go out there. I may represent the compliance person.
Most important, we’d roll the local inspector out, because they had the most credibility in the community.
Russel: The same thing’s true of the operators. The guy with the most credibility is the guy in the pickup truck that’s going to the football games with the local residents.
Chris: Exactly, I know.
Russel: Fundamentally, in an incident, that’s who the people want to hear from. They don’t want to hear from the CEO.
Chris: Let’s say we have an incident in Montana. They want to talk to the guy in Bozeman. They don’t want to talk to some director out of Denver. Even less so, they don’t want to talk to somebody out of DC. The further you get away from the pipeline, the less trust there is.
Russel: The further you get away from the community.
Chris: Yeah, exactly. That’s a better way of putting it.
Russel: Yeah. What about, once you have an incident, what makes a good versus a bad operator?
Chris: [sighs] The ability to listen. Go there and truly listen. The ability to find out who needs to know. You’ve got to provide the county, you’ve got to provide the governor, you’ve got to provide the congressman, you’ve got to provide them with information. Both the operator should be doing it, and the regulator ought to be doing it.
They do not want to be approached by the media saying, “What do you know about this pipeline incident that occurred?” and they go, “We don’t really even know who regulates it.” You’ve got to give them the information that they could say, “Hey, we feel comfortable with how it’s being handled,” or, “This is what I know,” but don’t leave them hanging.
I think the better operators are really good at providing the decision makers the information they need to say what’s going on. Getting back to what we were talking about earlier, the better operators, they put a local out there. They put another person that can actually expend resources and make decisions.
Then they show commitment by the company by bringing out, like I say, a VP or a president. They’re actually doing it in three tiers. The local, the person has the ability and the funds, and then somebody from corporate that shows the seriousness of the accident.
Russel: I’m going to try and recap that. The first thing you said was listen. Whenever I hear that, what comes to mind for me is the episode I did about Bellingham with Larry Shelton, the story he tells, and how he went and listened to the families who lost loved ones in that situation.
I’ll get a little emotional every time I talk about it, because, to me, that cuts really deep. You’ve got to go listen to the place where people are suffering. You got to go listen to the hard stuff to listen to. I think that’s first. The other thing that’s interesting, and the other part of it, is you also need to proactively communicate, and in multiple ways at multiple levels to multiple people.
What I’m taking away from what you’re saying is – this is probably true for both before and after the incident – you know your community, you listen to your community, you proactively communicate to your community. The hard part of knowing your community is knowing who the people are that I’m going to need to talk to if we have an incident here.
Chris: Exactly, because finding out who to reach out to, you’re invariably going to forget somebody. If you do forget somebody, let’s say it’s an irrigation district. They’ll find you. Rest assured, they’re going to find the operator. They’re going to find the regulator.
Hey, apologize. Say, “Hey, I thought, I was trying to communicate with everybody I knew. We missed you. How can we bring you up to speed?” Just do the best you can. Muddle through it.
Russel: Well, and whenever you have an incident, the rate at which things are moving for you versus the expectation of the public about how quick you should be able to move, that’s often radically disconnected. Anyways, the last question I want to ask you, Chris, is, based on this conversation we’ve been having, what would you want operators to take away?
Chris: What I want operators to take away is know your pinch points, know where the greatest consequences are. Two, double your effort for public awareness. Make sure you know the right people to talk in the event of an incident. Three, acknowledge. Acknowledge the risk.
Don’t try to say that the pipeline doesn’t pose a risk. Of course, it poses a risk. This isn’t being trite. Say, “Our goal is zero incidents. We’re here for the long haul. We’re going to try to make this pipeline as safe as possible.”
Identify the players and show true commitment, show true listening. After the incident stops, you just can’t stop communicating. You don’t want to ghost them. You have to keep talking with them.
Russel: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true.
Chris: So many people, the pipeline gets up and running again, and they just walk away. It’s noticed. It’s noticed by the public.
Russel: There’s a reason that’s true, because you get consumed with all the things that are necessary to operate the pipeline.
Russel: Yeah, interesting.
Chris: You have to be in it for the long haul.
Russel: Yeah, absolutely. Listen, this has been a great conversation. I certainly learned some things. I’ve certainly learned some things. The primary thing I’m going to probably anchor to is, when I’m looking at my emergency response and my evaluation of risk, I really need to factor in the potential outrage.
Chris: Oh, without a doubt.
Russel: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode of The Pipeliners Podcast and our conversation with Chris. Just a reminder. You should go register to win our customized Pipeliners Podcast Yeti tumbler. Simply visit PipelinePodcastNetwork.com/Win and 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