This week’s Pipeliners Podcast episode features the return of former PHMSA Administrator Howard “Skip” Elliott to discuss the need for full-scale testing to support pipeline safety.
In this episode, you will learn about PHMSA’s collaboration with the pipeline industry, Mr. Elliott’s advice on shifting the narrative around the pipeline industry, and the many benefits of implementing a pipeline safety site like other government agencies. Russel and Mr. Elliott also discuss the need for a safety action program for the pipeline industry.
Testing to Support Pipeline Safety: Show Notes, Links, and Insider Terms
- Howard “Skip” Elliott is the retired former PHMSA Administrator. Connect with Mr. Elliott on LinkedIn.
- Mr. Elliott served as Fifth Administrator of PHMSA and Acting Inspector General for U.S. DOT preceded by a 40-year career at one of the nation’s largest freight railroads.
- 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.
- Office of Inspector General (OIG) oversees Department of Transportation (DOT) operations and programs to detect and prevent fraud, waste, and abuse. The Inspector General leads efforts to support DOT’s priorities of transportation safety and effective program delivery and performance.
- Calvin L. Scovel III is the retired former Inspector General. He served in the role from October 2006 to January 2020.
- Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI) provides professional investigative service to commanders of all Air Force activities. AFOSI identifies, investigates, and neutralizes criminal, terrorist, and espionage threats to Air Force and Department of Defense personnel and resources.
- Office of Hazardous Materials Safety carries out a national safety program, including security matters, to protect against the risks to life and property inherent in the transportation of hazardous materials in commerce by all transportation modes.
- GPAC and LPAC are statutorily mandated advisory committees that provide PHMSA and the Secretary of Transportation with recommendations on proposed standards for the transportation of natural gas or hazardous liquids by pipeline.
- GPAC (Gas Pipeline Advisory Committee) is organized by PHMSA to review their proposed regulatory initiatives to assure the technical feasibility, reasonableness, cost-effectiveness, and practicability of each proposal.
- LPAC (Liquid Pipeline Advisory Committee) reviews PHMSA’s proposed regulatory initiatives to assure the technical feasibility, reasonableness, cost-effectiveness, and practicability of each proposal. The committee also evaluates the cost-benefit analysis and risk assessment information of the proposals.
- The PRCI (Pipeline Research Council International) is the preeminent global collaborative research development organization of, by, and for the energy pipeline industry. PRCI collaborates with PHMSA to provide a tool for members and the industry to perform tests and verifications. [Read more about the PRCI collaborative research projects, papers, and presentations.]
- The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is the regulator of all the nation’s civil aviation activities, including management of air traffic in U.S. airspace. Their goal is to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world.
- Steve Dickson currently serves as FAA administrator. He was sworn in for a five-year term effective August 2019. At the FAA, Administrator Dickson has been a staunch advocate for safety, global leadership, operational excellence, and the development of FAA’s workforce.
- Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP) is designed to enhance aviation safety through the prevention of accidents and incidents. Its focus is to encourage voluntary reporting of safety issues and events that come to the attention of stakeholders.
- The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) was created by the Department of Transportation Act of 1966. Its mission is to enable the safe, reliable, and efficient movement of people and goods.
- Maritime Administration (MARAD) promotes the use of waterborne transportation and ensures that its infrastructure integrates seamlessly with other methods of transportation. MARAD also maintains a fleet of cargo ships in reserve to provide surge sea-lift during wars and national emergencies and is responsible for disposing of ships in that fleet and other non-combatant government ships as they become obsolete.
- CARES Act (The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) includes important provisions to mitigate the sharp economic decline caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) is natural gas that has been cooled to a liquid state (liquefied), at about -260° Fahrenheit, for shipping and storage. The volume of natural gas in its liquid state is about 600 times smaller than its volume in its gaseous state in a natural gas pipeline.
- The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce and is one of the nation’s oldest physical science laboratories. Congress established the agency to remove a major challenge to U.S. industrial competitiveness.
- Pigging refers to using devices known as “pigs” to perform maintenance operations. This tool associated with inline pipeline inspection has now become known as a Pipeline Inspection Gauge (PIG).
- The Marshall Incident refers to the Enbridge Incorporated Hazardous Liquid Rupture and Release, which occurred on July 25, 2010, in Marshall, Michigan. [Read the full NTSB Accident Report.]
- The Bellingham (Washington) Pipeline Incident (Olympic Pipeline explosion) occurred on June 10, 1999, when a gas pipeline ruptured near Whatcom Creek in Bellingham, Wash., causing deaths and injuries. Three deaths included 18-year-old Liam Wood and 10-year-olds Stephen Tsiorvas and Wade King.
- The NTSB accident report attributed the cause of the rupture and subsequent fire to a lack of employee training, a faulty SCADA system, and damaged pipeline equipment. [Read the NTSB Pipeline Accident Report]
- Listen to Larry Shelton describe his first-hand experience from the incident on Pipeliners Podcast #79.
Testing to Support Pipeline Safety: Full Episode Transcript
Russel Treat: Welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast, episode 223, sponsored by EnerACT Energy Services, supporting pipeline operators to achieve natural compliance through plans, procedures, and tools implemented to automatically create and retain records as work is performed. Find out more at EnerACTEnergyServices.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.
Russel: Thanks for listening to The Pipeliners Podcast. I appreciate you taking the time. To show the appreciation, we give away a cool, customized Yeti tumbler to one listener every episode. This week, our winner is Maria Dorelien with TECO Peoples Gas. To learn how you can win this signature prize, stick around till the end of the episode.
This week, Skip Elliott, the recently retired PHMSA Administrator, returns to offer his perspective on the need for full-scale testing to support pipeline safety. Skip, welcome back to the Pipeliners Podcast.
Skip Elliott: Russel, thank you. It’s been, gosh, it’s been almost two years.
Russel: Yes. Yes, it has. Time has flown by. You’re in a new role now. The last time we talked to you, you were the administrator of PHMSA. What are you up to these days?
Skip: Great question. Important question. I can honestly say that I am being very successful at my second attempt at retirement.
Skip: After 40 years, as you recall, 40 years in the freight rail industry, I had retired for the first time back in 2017, and then was asked by then-Secretary Elaine Chao to come to Washington and oversee the professionals – the women and men at PHMSA – which I enjoyed tremendously.
Toward the end of that period of time, I was also asked to be the Acting Inspector General, which is something else that I really enjoyed.
As the administration ended in 2021, then I packed my proverbial bags and headed back to Florida, and had told myself that I realize that I had worked full time for over 45 years, and although my mind was telling me that I needed to be engaged, I needed to be doing something, I couldn’t just stop.
I came to terms with myself to basically say, even during the pandemic, just take a year off as best I could. It was tough. It was hard to unplug after all those years. It’s been a little bit more than a year now, and you can usually find me out in the yard pulling weeds or washing and waxing cars.
I still get the opportunity to stay in touch with a lot of the good folks at PHMSA and the Office of the Inspector General, and even a lot of my colleagues back from the railroad days.
That’s not to say that I won’t re-engage at some point now that year that I had set has come and gone, but I appreciate you inviting me back. I do want to commend you though. I know that probably one of the more enjoyable things that I got to do is when I did the first podcast with you, I think that was in May of 2020 in Houston.
Russel: That sounds right.
Skip: We were visiting Houston. I was just very impressed. The thing that stuck out to me was your insistence that this podcast is all about informing and educating pipeline professionals.
In the world that I had lived in for three and a half years, it was much more about hyperbole, and much less about fact and information. I think the work that you’re doing is just tremendously important in the pipeline industry.
I came away from my time in Washington with a significant appreciation for the individuals, and the companies, and the suppliers that support the 2.8 million miles of pipeline that we have in this country.
Russel: A lot of the innovation comes from the so-called vendor community, right? The budgets that the pipeliners had 30 years ago when I started in the business, 30 plus years ago, those budgets don’t really exist like they used to. They had whole research R&D departments. They now rely on others to do that. They pool resources. The market dynamics are very different there.
Skip: Very true.
Russel: Anyways, look, Skip, thank you so much for the kind words. I really appreciate that. I’m always a bit humbled when people tell me I’m doing a good job at this because I’m really just pursuing what I think’s fun, to be honest. I really enjoy having these kinds of conversations.
I did want to talk to you just briefly about what you did as the IG. Can you tell the listeners what the Inspector General of PHMSA does?
Skip: I spent about, it was close to nine months as the Acting Inspector General. The long-time Inspector General, Cal Scovel, who was a man I just had great admiration for, had announced his retirement.
The secretary made the decision that she wanted somebody from within the Department of Transportation to fill that role until the president could announce and have confirmed a permanent replacement. I guess I was the lucky one.
The secretary, who I had great admiration for, I guess she always saw me as a utility player, and she thought that this would be something that I would be good at.
The Inspector General at the Department of Transportation is an independent agency within the Department of Transportation, and it is responsible for conducting across-the-board audits.
When we talk about all the different modal administrations within the Department of Transportation from FAA to Federal Railroad Administration, to the National Highway Safety Administration, to Federal Highway, and the Maritime Administration to conduct audits in basically all the different operational areas within those modal administrations.
The Office of Inspector General also has the responsibility to do the criminal investigations. The Inspector General has the special agents assigned to it that will go out and investigate any allegations, substantiated allegations, of wrongdoing. Keep in mind, so the Department of Transportation, and it’s probably still about the same, over 50,000 employees, and a budget of $89 billion.
During my time in the Inspector General’s role, this was a time we were in the middle of the pandemic, and the CARES Act had been implemented by the administration, so there were literally hundreds of millions of dollars, trillions of dollars going out to support the economy.
Even I was surprised how quickly it came to bear people doing nefarious things with those dollars. They would apply for payroll support. They would apply for whatever you could apply for to get CARES Act dollars, and how quickly it came to light people who were applying for those dollars and then obviously not using those dollars for the intended purpose.
The special agents, the criminal investigators within the Department of Transportation, that’s my background many years ago, have the responsibility of going out and looking to uncover all that. The team would go out and investigate medical doctors who were doing physicals, and in some cases clocking hundreds of physicals a day, so obviously they weren’t really doing what they were supposed to be doing.
Again, much like the staff at PHMSA, with the team at the Office of the Inspector General, there was the audit side and the investigation side. These are tremendously dedicated professionals. I know you and I have talked about this. This was the case both at PHMSA and OIG.
Being what’s called a non-career, political appointee, I had to swirl around in that whole political atmosphere. People get this misconception that the agencies, the employees that work in these agencies somehow get swept up in that. That’s not the case.
At PHMSA, whether or not it was on the pipeline safety side or the Office of Hazardous Materials Safety, the individuals there were dedicated to improving hazardous material transportation safety.
In the U.S. today we move 1.2 million shipments of hazardous materials each and every day by all modes of transportation, and then of course, as you know on the pipeline side, 2.8 million miles of pipeline, enough to go around the Earth how many hundreds of times or whatever it is.
People were so focused on focusing on safety and their jobs. To me, it was really nice because you could almost get away from some of the political turmoil that was going on at the time. The same held true with the Office of the Inspector General. OIGs in the government are not always seen in good light.
Russel: There was a story we always told in the Air Force about the Inspector General showing up on the airplane and coming off and shaking the hand of the base commanders. That’s when the two biggest lies in the Air Force were told, and that’s when the Inspector General got off and said, “We’re here to help,” and when the base commander said, “We’re glad to see you.” [laughs]
Skip: I will tell you about your Air Force background is that a large number of – and actually the individual who oversaw the criminal investigation side – all came from the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. That seems to be a real affinity for folks that learned their investigative kind of acumen from the Air Force.
Russel: That’s really interesting.
Skip: Let me tell you, they were some of the sharpest investigators I’ve ever met in my 45 years.
Russel: I never had involvement really with any criminal investigations, but I had some involvement with accident investigation in the Air Force tangentially. That was fascinating just how those people approach that work.
Anyway, this is all interesting. I do have to make a sidebar comment because when you talk about being the auditor of PHMSA, there’s probably a lot of pipeliners out there that have an interesting idea like “Ooh, I could go audit PHMSA. Wouldn’t that be fun.”
Skip: I will tell you on my very first day I set up two-way recusals so I could have no involvement in any audits or investigations involving PHMSA. Conversely, if PHMSA was due for a regularly scheduled audit – whether or not it was in procurement or IT, whatever it might be – I would know that it was going on, but I could have no involvement whatsoever in any of the contextual part of it at all.
Russel: You make some really excellent points. The people that work at PHMSA, and make that a career, they do that because they have a passion for what they’re doing. They have to.
If you work with the agency at all, you learn pretty quickly that the folks that are working in the agency, while they, of course, have to respond to the leadership they’re getting out of the executive branch, they’re still about doing the same job.
Skip: The tough thing about PHMSA is that PHMSA was a relatively small safety agency.
One thing that I did pick up on, unlike FAA or Federal Railroad or Federal Highway, which were large modal administrations, is that unfortunately there were some really great employees, technically gifted engineers, safety professionals and the way that the government GS system is set up is that a lot of times we would lose some very good people because you didn’t have the same ability to promote within PHMSA, being a relatively small modal administration in comparison. We would lose some really good folks.
We were never able to really solve that problem. We did create an internal leadership development program that was designed to take employees from anywhere in PHMSA, and allow them to be plug-and-play leaders. It may be an engineer in the pipeline safety side that could go through this leadership development program, and who in essence could go anywhere in PHMSA and be a leader.
Skip: I’m glad to see. I just saw something on LinkedIn the other day where PHMSA is still promoting that leadership development program. So, good for them. They’re doing something very good to try and build stronger leaders within PHMSA.
Russel: When you came on last time, we were talking about pipeline R&D. In that role, you were talking as Administrator of PHMSA. Now you’re talking as a private citizen interested in safety. Just so the listeners understand that distinction.
I wanted to ask you what’s your take on where are we in terms of building up that test capability as an industry? What’s your take on that?
Skip: Again, another important question. Russel, we have still a long ways to go in building the collaborative trust that exists between the federal government, specifically, PHMSA, and the pipeline industry, specifically the pipeline owners as well as the suppliers.
I come from a background in my 40 years in the freight rail industry where we saw and became very concerned about overly prescriptive regulations, and I think the same holds true in the pipeline industry, rightfully so. There was never really the adaptation across the board of risk-based kind of performance and regulations.
Because of that, even though PHMSA every year makes available millions of dollars to promote research and development, one of the things that I thought was very apparent to me was this lack of cohesion in collaborating more quickly, more strongly, and with greater trust between PHMSA and the pipeline industry.
Again, I know you and I have talked about this. One glaring statistic is that the pipeline industry in this country while inherently safe is getting older. 50 percent of pipelines are over 60 years old.
Much like my experience in the freight rail industry, while incidents happen, when major incidents happen, it tends to shift the whole pipeline earth on its axis, and everybody goes into defense mode, and we see, unfortunately, more prescriptive regulations.
The bottom line is we tried to take, and we did, I took some pretty important steps to try and fix that. I still think that there needs to be greater collaboration between industry and government when it comes to pipeline research and development. I think the government, I think PHMSA has to take a stronger role in helping to promote that.
Again, I pull on my experience from the railroad in that PHMSA – given the expansiveness of the pipeline system in this country – PHMSA is one of the few agencies that does not have its own test center available to do large-scale, real-time testing. FAA has it. Federal Railroad Administration has it. Federal Highway has a center. Federal Motor Carrier Safety’s had a center.
I couldn’t understand why PHMSA did not have its own test center that would not be where government is an oppressive overseer, but much like the model that I learned from in the railroad industry with the Federal Railroad Administration, a site that would encourage railroad owners and suppliers to come to a site and be creative; be innovative to be able to test in real-time and large scale, and then put that technology into play throughout the United States much quicker. It seems to me that when you look at the distribution networks, the similarities between pipeline and railroad – they’re pretty similar.
Russel: Yeah, but there’s one very important distinction, I think. Pipelines are largely out of sight, out of mind because they’re buried.
I remember…I’ve got family up in Portland, Oregon. I was up there visiting. They’re asking me, “What do you do?” I say, “I work in the software domain and focus on pipeline safety.” I asked the question, “Do you guys have pipelines up here?”
They’re like, “Oh, no, no. We don’t have pipelines.” The next day my wife and I were taking a drive. We drove out into eastern Oregon, and then came back along the Columbia River and then drove through the downtown area around Portland. I’m like, “There’s pipelines all over this place.”
They don’t know because they don’t see them. One of the challenges I think we have in the pipeline industry is we’re largely out of sight, out of mind until we try to build something or until we have an accident or an incident. We’re pretty much out of sight, out of mind.
That’s problematic. It’s harder to get support when you’re out of sight, out of mind. It goes to another question.
One of the things I’m always interested to talk about because I find the whole political discourse that goes on in our country fascinating. If you were going to tell a guy like me, “Well, Russel, what you need to know, what you need to do in order to shift the narrative is,” what would you tell me about how to shift the narrative around pipelines?
Skip: For me anyway, my advice to you would be that if you’re going to change the narrative around pipeline safety, first and foremost we have to do a better job of substantiating the facts that are already there.
Russel: What do you mean by that, by “substantiating the facts?” What does that mean?
Skip: Again, yes, the pipelines are out of sight, out of mind. I’m used to the railroads, which are big and bulky. To me, the ramifications when something goes bad are the same, whether or not it’s a pipeline that’s three-foot underground or a railroad that’s moving through…
Russel: That’s certainly true. I would agree with that.
Skip: The ramifications are the same. Because of that, there’s a correlation between people wanting to arbitrarily blame railroads for creating massive problems in communities, because the railroads move hundreds of hazardous materials through a community in a train, versus pipelines that also move hundreds of thousands of gallons, each and every day, of liquids and gases underground.
To answer your question, we all need to have a more compelling argument about the facts. If you look at railroads and pipelines, they’re both 99.99 plus percent safe all the time. It’s only when something bad happens.
I just wrote an article talking about LNG by rail, which was a PHMSA rulemaking that had been finalized while I was there. The people that opposed it tried to blame the unsafe railroads. My point of view was, “Listen, you can’t blame the railroads because you don’t have the facts to blame the railroads for being unsafe.”
If you look at the statistics, the statistics say that railroads are absolutely safe, the same as pipelines. Let’s throw away, let’s counter the people that want to use pipelines as being inherently unsafe with fact.
I think the other thing, then, that has to be done. There has to be greater collaboration to go tell this story between government and industry. That’s something that was not really looked at too keenly, even during my time, during an administration that was pretty pro-industry.
There was this veil, so to speak, between jointly going together between industry and government. I think without having that equation, I think without doing that, you’re never going to get the lawmakers to basically believe that.
When I say lawmakers, too, I know this is not about politics. It’s who you influence. Members of Congress are one thing.
Russel: I used to be active in politics in my 30s. I was quite active in politics. One of the things I learned there is that politics is about influence. There’s various ways that influence happens. Shifting the narrative is really about trying to maximize your influence towards an outcome or a way of thinking. That’s one of the things I learned back then.
What I would say about shifting the narrative is, first, I agree with you. We’ve got to start beating the drum about the facts. Pipelines are inherently safe. However, just like other things, like airplanes and trains, when we have an incident it’s a big deal, even though they’re rare when they happen. It’s a big deal. None of them are okay.
Part of that is to talk about, “Here’s the things we’re doing to get better.” Certainly, pipeline safety management is an aspect of that. I do think that we are not doing near the job we could around collaboratively advocating to get better.
Skip: I agree. I want to go back to this notion about why…In order to do that, in order to have this compelling message of safety. PHMSA needs to be able to do what FAA, FRA, and Federal Highway can do, is to have a place.
Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely think the work that’s being done at PRCI is critical. In my 40 years in the railroad, I don’t know how many times we took members of Congress and staffers out to the FRA’s Transportation Technology Center in Pueblo, Colorado where it’s 55 square miles of railroad and testing capabilities of everything being able to get up close and personal and show why this new technology makes this component of the railroad, whether or not it’s the track, or the bridge, or the car, that much safer. You can’t really do that in the pipeline sector.
You need to be able to have, and like it or not, a government site where the government is basically putting its stamp of approval. That’s the other thing that something like this will do.
Russel: That’s actually one of the things that the government does extraordinarily well. They’re very good at setting standards. NIST is a government agency. They set standards around weights and measures. That is all good and beneficial to the economy.
Another thing they do well is they do R&D really well because they have the ability to fund it at a scale that, because they’re able to take the resources of multiple players and put them together, they can fund it at a scale that otherwise couldn’t happen.
I’m with you. I think full-scale testing and full-scale demonstration is critical. Until you see somebody launch a pig into a 36-inch crude oil pipeline, you don’t really have an appreciation for what that’s all about.
Skip: We had put $10 million towards creating the site. I had worked with our colleagues at FRA. They had carved out a 2,000 acre site. The engineers at PHMSA worked closely. There was this collaborative effort with engineers from industry, some of the best R&D minds available to try to figure out what would this place look like.
To me, it was mind-boggling. They were talking about a half-mile, mile piggable loop that could have interchangeable anomalies. Anything and everything. But the other entrepreneurial part about this is that you could…If you were a supplier and you wanted to test new technology, you could go out there and do that.
This is another important point, is that if you look at the model that the FRA has, you could go out to their site. They didn’t want the secret sauce. They didn’t want to know the proprietary information behind your technology. What they wanted to do was encourage this new technology so that it could be put into play throughout the U.S. rail industry much quicker.
Something else that PHMSA gets criticized for, and we agreed in my time in PHMSA, is that we’re not very good at reviewing, evaluating, and approving new technology. It’s literally years in the making.
Sites like this have proven their worth in being able to move from concept to basic practice much quicker because you have the ability to condense all of this into a single location to showcase it.
Again, to me it’s still a very good and valid idea. I hope that, at some point, PHMSA will get the autonomy to move forward on this. Unfortunately, there are a lot of checks and balances within government outside of DOT.
Russel: Our government is inefficient and often that’s a good thing.
What I would say, just to put a cap on what you’ve been talking about, Skip, is from my perspective. We do a pretty good job in the industry overall in pure R&D. Where we have a major gap is in the process from it’s out of the lab, and it works as a proof of concept, and it’s in the field, and it’s delivering the value to industry.
Oftentimes, the work that’s necessary to get new technology from lab prototype proven to field proven and use in industry is way more work than to get it out of the lab. That’s not often understood.
Again, it’s a structured process. Having facilities that have the ability to do full-scale testing, and have an incentive, and make the cost of doing that more achievable for these inventors, because they’re always struggling for cash. It’s critical for where we want to go in the industry. It’s absolutely critical.
Skip: Because I know that I had some colleagues in the pipeline industry that were concerned about cost, this is an area where I think government has the responsibility to provide the seed dollars to start making this happen.
Again, I look at what FRA, the Federal Railroad Administration, has done at their test site in Colorado for over 50 years. My first time out to the site in Colorado was in the mid-1980s.
Most of the modern-day technology – both engineering technology and safety technology – that’s been put into place in the freight rail industry in the U.S. today, has basically been something that’s been proven out at the Transportation Technology Center because they could do it in large scale.
There were a lot of incentives to go out there, and to be able to perform tests that you can’t do anyplace else. That’s the problem, I think, in our industries. Pipeline, rail. Just because of the footprint…You can’t necessarily bench test everything on a computer.
Russel: You can only get so far in the lab.
Russel: You can only get so far in the lab. When I was at [Texas] A&M in civil engineering, I wasn’t directly involved, but I had some opportunity to do a little stuff around Texas Transportation Institute and the facilities they had around the university. They had some large facilities where they could run trucks into guardrails. They got to crash and break things.
What was interesting to me about that is all the ways and all the types of data that they collected when they crashed something. They’d run a test and they’d spend weeks or months setting the test up. To run the test in an afternoon, they spend months and years doing the analysis on the data they collected trying to determine what that meant and how to learn from it.
A lot of times, you go to these big facilities. You drive around, and there’s not a lot going on. The reason is that it takes a lot of time to plan to do one of these tests, and get done what you need to get done. You still need the facilities to do them.
Skip: You mentioned Texas A&M. You can’t forget, too, that some of these centers that the government has, and then places like Texas A&M. The work that they do in training emergency responders in full scale, too.
Russel: Yeah, my dad was in the volunteer fire department in Clifton, Texas, which is out west of Waco. He spent a summer at the Volunteer Fire School in Texas A&M. That made for some good stories.
Anyways, Skip, one of the things we have talked about in the past, and we were talking about this as we were planning this episode, is this idea of a safety action program.
The airlines have a really mature safety program. I think they call it the Aviation Safety Action Program. It’s been around for a long time, 30 years plus. We don’t have anything like that in pipelining. What do you think we need to do in order to get to that kind of industry-wide program for safety action?
Skip: I will be the first one to tell you that there are so many good concepts out there that, with some modification, would work well, I think, in the pipeline industry. You hit upon it.
I was sad to read that the current FAA administrator Steve Dickson, who I got to know during my time at PHMSA, will be leaving. I remember him talking about…this was during the Boeing Max, also something I got involved with during my time as the Acting Inspector General to get to understand better about the FAA, their safety assurance system, and to learn more about the office. If I think I got this right, it’s System Assessment Oversight Office that sees that.
I learned how it’s supported the evolution of a system safety approach into a single oversight system. I think something like that, modeled on what FAA has done, and what other modal administrations are doing would work well, but this is something that’s going to take time.
I think the FAA program actually started in 2006-2007 and has five different phases projected out towards 2027 before it reaches full maturity. Is that exactly what the pipeline industry needs? No, but I think when you look at the components of a safety assurance system like that, that is, yes, overseen by the government, but yet allows a lot of risk-based fact-finding and sharing of information. It really goes to what we’ve talked about today.
Push the hyperbole to the side. Let’s talk about facts. Let’s talk about sharing information. Let’s talk about a concerted effort on improving safety. Look what it has done for the airline industry in the United States.
Russel: It’s been transformational.
Skip: Safety in the U.S. pipeline system is every bit as important, but let’s face it. Safety of the flying public is something that probably is at the top of the heap, as far as why you have to get it right each and every day. I do think there are so many good components of a system like that.
Again, it’s going to have to take the government being willing to have a certain amount of trust in industry, and conversely, the industry having a certain amount of trust in the government. Given what we see every day on the news, I don’t know that that’s as easy as it could have been, say, 10, 20 years ago. Who knows? I still think it’s worth trying.
Russel: Everything gets hyper-politicized and hyper-communicated because of the nature of the world we live in today.
I’ve had a number of conversations with a gentleman who’s a pilot for American Airlines. He was one of the first people to get involved with the Aviation Safety Action Program. He’s been doing it for 30 years. He’s a real advocate. He’s consistently looking for opportunities to take what they’ve learned in aviation and take it to other critical infrastructures. I hope to have him on the podcast here in the next month or two. I want to get him to tell his story. It’s very interesting.
That whole program started with the airline. Then the airline had to educate and orient the agency. Then the agency had to figure out how to adopt it, and let the airlines do what the airlines needed to do but provide…I don’t want to say an oversight effort as much as a coordinating effort.
The other key thing they had to do is they had to create a safe harbor. They had to make it okay to share bad stuff, and keep that stuff you’re sharing outside of any punitive audit type stuff.
Skip: Absolutely critical.
Russel: That’s a huge shift for PHMSA because they’d have to completely rethink how they approach their audits.
Skip: It’s something that’s on the table. If you look at the GPAC and the LPAC, the work that’s being done there. There’s a lot of dialogue about how do you have no-fault fixing, how do you come forward with a problem and not have to worry about the government pouncing down on you.
Having worn both hats, as somebody that was in a heavily regulated industry for 40 years, then being the administrator of a safety agency, and the guy who oversaw the agency that does all the audits and investigations, even with that perspective I don’t know how you can get to the next level of safety without having that kind of collaborative trust built.
Russel: I think you’re not going to get to an order of magnitude improvement. You can get to incremental improvements, but the next wave of…We had an order of magnitude improvement related to all the things we did with smart pigging. That’s happened over the last 15 years in a really material way.
We’re now at a place where the next order of magnitude improvement is going to come more from human management systems than it’s going to come from technology.
Skip: If we can eliminate one Marshall, Michigan or Bellingham, Washington…
Russel: It’s like safety. You don’t get to count how many incidents you eliminate. Just get to count the number of days you went without having an incident.
Look, Skip, this has been great. I always enjoy getting you on. I’ll be very interested to see what you’re doing in another year.
Skip: Russel, thank you for having me. As you can tell, I’m pretty passionate about safety in all modes of transportation.
Although my time at PHMSA was, in the scheme of things, was relatively short, I became a big cheerleader and advocate of the work that’s being done in the pipeline industry, and for the tremendous work that’s being done by the professional women and men at PHMSA each and every day.
If I could wish one thing that could happen is you’d see that come together a little bit better than it is now so that we could work better and faster at finding new safety technologies. As for me, being retired in Florida, there are worse things. We’ll see what’s next on the agenda for me.
Russel: Awesome. Thanks, again, Skip. It’s great to have you.
Skip: Russel, thank you. Stay safe, my friend.
Russel: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode of the Pipeliners Podcast and our conversation with Skip. Just a reminder before you go, you should register to win our customized Pipeliners Podcast YETI tumbler. Simply visit pipelinepodcastnetwork.com/win and enter yourself in the drawing.
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Russel: If you have ideas, questions, or topics you’d be interested in, please let me know either on the Contact Us page or reach out to me on LinkedIn. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you next week.
Transcription by CastingWords