This week’s Pipeliners Podcast episode features Cliff Johnson discussing the Emerging Fuels Institute from the Pipeline Research Council International.
In this episode, you will learn about how hydrogen and renewable gasses could begin to impact the energy industry in the future, especially through its requirements for transportation. Mr. Johnson and Russel also go into detail about the movement of hydrogen and whether or not the existing United States infrastructure will be able to withstand that type of use safely.
PRCI’s Emerging Fuels Institute: Show Notes, Links, and Insider Terms
- Cliff Johnson is the president of the Pipeline Research Council International (PRCI). Connect with Mr. Johnson on LinkedIn.
- The PRCI (Pipeline Research Council International) is the preeminent global collaborative research development organization of, by, and for the energy pipeline industry. [Read more about the PRCI collaborative research projects, papers, and presentations.]
- Emerging Fuels Institute, established in April 2021, provides PRCI members the opportunity to execute the research needed to ensure the safe transportation and storage of the next generation of energy, such as hydrogen, renewable natural gas (RNG), and other potential gas and liquid fuel sources that will help meet the world’s energy needs while reducing the impact to the environment.
- Hydrogen Gas is a clean energy carrier that can be used to store, move, and deliver energy produced from other sources. Hydrogen can be produced from a variety of domestic resources, such as natural gas, nuclear power, biomass, and renewable power like solar and wind. These qualities make it an attractive fuel option for transportation and electricity generation applications. It can be used in cars, in houses, for portable power, and in many more applications.
- PHMSA (Pipeline And Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) protects people and the environment by advancing the safe transportation of energy and other hazardous materials that are essential to our daily lives. To do this, the agency establishes national policy, sets and enforces standards, educates, and conducts research to prevent incidents. They prepare the public and first responders to reduce consequences if an incident does occur.
- PHMSA R&D Forum is a public meeting and forum that serves as an opportunity for pipeline stakeholders to discuss research gaps and challenges in pipeline safety and emerging fuels, including hydrogen transportation.
- The Energy Futures Initiative (EFI) is dedicated to harnessing the power of innovation in technology and policy development to create energy jobs, enhance global energy access and security, and promote science-based, actionable solutions to the challenge of climate change. They do this through coalition building, thought leadership, and conducting science-based analysis.
- Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) is a pipeline-quality gas that is fully interchangeable with conventional natural gas. The quality of RNG is similar to fossil natural gas and has a methane concentration of 90% or greater.
- Pipeline SMS (Pipeline Safety Management Systems) or PSMS is an industry-wide focus to improve pipeline safety, driving toward zero incidents.
- Read about the recent CO2 release in Mississippi that was mentioned during the episode.
PRCI’s Emerging Fuels Institute: Full Episode Transcript
Russel Treat: Welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast, episode 235, sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute, driving safety, environmental protection, and sustainability across the natural gas and oil industry through world class standards and safety programs. Since its formation as a standards setting organization in 1919, API has developed more than 700 standards to enhance industry operations worldwide. Find out more about API at api.org.
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 that appreciation, we give away a customized YETI tumbler to one listener each episode. This week, our winner is Jeffrey Johnson with Magellan Midstream. Congratulations, Jeffrey, your YETI is on its way. To learn how you can win this signature prize, stick around till the end of the episode.
This week, Cliff Johnson returns to talk about PRCI’s Emerging Fuels Institute and their work in hydrogen and renewable natural gas. Hey, Cliff, welcome back to the Pipeliners Podcast.
Cliff Johnson: Hey, Russel, appreciate the opportunity. There’s a lot going on in our industry, so I can’t wait to talk to you today.
Russel: Ditto, and I’m going to have a cocktail because it’s almost the end of the day before the long Memorial weekend, and I’m about ready. I think I’ve earned my after work beverage.
Cliff: Maybe we should accelerate that, have the beverage while we talk, make it easier for both of us that’s going to share.
Russel: I recently did a podcast over a very nice bottle of wine. That was kind of fun. That could be habit forming, for sure.
I’ve asked you to come on and talk about what PRCI is doing with the Emerging Fuels Institute, in particular talk about hydrogen. There’s so much buzz about hydrogen and renewable natural gas. Hydrogen, in particular, most of us have a whole lot of questions about that. Maybe the first question to ask is just what’s going on?
Cliff: Like I said when we began, there’s a lot happening. There is so much change and evolution.
A year ago, the executive board for PRCI had the foresight to approve the creation of the Emerging Fuels Institute. If you think back a year ago to March of 2021, as a country, in the United States, we weren’t talking about emerging fuels. It wasn’t the perspective that anybody had. It was out there, but it wasn’t a large drum beat.
The board, though, said we need to be ready for it. They saw it coming. We have members in Europe. There were a lot of discussions globally about what is the next energy source. How do we do this, and where does it go? What role does pipelines and storage play?
Back in March of 2021, the board approved this new initiative, which we call the Emerging Fuels Institute, as I mentioned. Four companies were our coalition of the willing to get it started. They’re the ones who dove into the deep end of the pool and said, “Yes, Cliff, this is critical. We need to start doing it now.”
It was TC Energy, it was SoCal, it was Saudi Aramco, and I just lost the last one. That’s crazy. You lose one of your members, it’s never very good.
They dove into the pool and said, “Let’s make this happen. This is an important topic, so important that we can’t wait to do it.” PG&E was the last one, I forgot, PG&E, SoCal, TC Energy, and Saudi Aramco. They were the leaders who said, “Let’s do this.”
They developed and designed a research portfolio based on some work that PRCI did in 2020, which is the impetus behind some of the technical challenges. It was a state-of-the-art report, one for hydrogen, and one for renewable natural gas. These documents now have become a backbone in our industry for the technical questions that are out there. We’ve seen several state-of-the-art reports done by a variety of different groups since then and, of course, we’re all just confirming what we already knew. There’s not much new under the sun on these topics.
We all know our challenges. We know what it’s going to take to get to the next level. With those four companies starting with us, we’re able to begin looking and helping drive the conversation. Last summer, PRCI was able to pull together a North American governmental conversation that had never been had before. We brought together PHMSA. We brought together the Department of Energy, brought together the Canadian Energy Regulator, Natural Resources Canada, and, for the first time, the four of them had a chance to exchange with PRCI, kind of being the conduit of what’s the current state, where are we going. That was when all four began to challenge themselves on how we do this. We had about three meetings over the summer with that group, and the EFI leadership and that team helped lead a charge on what can we be doing and where we’re going.
From there, we saw some interesting outputs. We saw PHMSA develop the R&D forum that was held late last year. A key component of that was the emerging fuels conversation. Also had a nice international audience that helped participate, both with speakers and attendees on fleshing out the conversations here.
As I said, there’s a lot here, a whole lot here.
Russel: To me, the primary things that I’m hearing about in the gas space are hydrogen and renewable natural gas. To me, renewable natural gas is easier for us to understand as an industry because it’s been around for a long time. There’s a lot of people doing it already. It’s just that there’s a lot of new projects in the pipeline for that. The issues are making it even more commercially viable in how you clean up a small low pressure gas stream and do that in a way that’s economically feasible.
Cliff: That’s really the challenge. Renewable natural gas, as you alluded to, is actually technically not too far away. It’s very simple compared to what we’re trying to do with hydrogen. The biggest question with renewable natural gas is some of the contaminants that will be in the gas stream that we don’t have today. Once you know your feedstock, you can minimize and adjust for that.
From what we’re seeing in the industry and what makes tons of sense, is this more going to be point source energy? You’re not going to take renewable natural gas and ship it across the country. It’s going to be developed locally and then utilized locally. It’s the most common way you’re going to see it used. The technical hurdles really are small.
The state-of-the-art report really identified just one or two key technical issues which have already been addressed, by the way. Now, we’re creating a database with the Gas Technology Institute of the variety constituents that we know that could be in there, so the variety of sources of renewable natural gas across the world. We understand a little bit better what those may be.
We can identify what constituents would be in there and the contaminants that may be associated with it to help us remediate that effectiveness. RNG, that’s definitely something that’s very short term. We can make that transition tomorrow, almost. It’s just a matter of having some political will to go down that space.
RNG has been glossed over in this conversation of the emerging fuels by the industry as a whole to some degree. It’s really not the industry. It’s more the public and the governmental bodies. It gets tagged as being just one more carbon-based fuel.
That’s the challenge that we have. It’s just seen as another dirty carbon fuel when in actuality it’s a very clean, efficient way to move energy across our system.
Russel: Not not only that. If you think of it as dirty, you’re failing to consider that emissions if it’s not captured and consumed as energy.
Russel: It’s going to the atmosphere one way or the other.
Cliff: That’s where the discussion isn’t fully had. It’s just seen as carbon bad. It’s what we start with. I’m like, “OK, great statement, but what does that mean exactly?” When you dig into it, like you said, it’s the emissions part.
If we are capturing this product and put it into renewable natural gas, it increases the CO2 content in the atmosphere. We want to go after it and aggressively use it for productive use instead of trying to find a way to bury it, which is a lot of activities around that is to really how can make it useful? How do we make it very viable?
The energy content is very high. The usability is really easy. We don’t have to change a lot of the equipment. It’s pretty much turn and play tomorrow, but it’s the political will. Sometimes, like I said, when the public hears the word carbon, no matter what format it’s in, it’s just bad, and that’s a losing conversation.
Russel: That in itself is another conversation. Not really what I want to dig in today. I agree with your assessment of renewable natural gas. I was doing those kinds of projects 15 years ago. That tech’s been around. What’s interesting in that market is a lot of people that are doing it.
It’s the trash companies, the landfill companies, the sewage treatment folks, and none of these guys understand natural gas or natural gas processing. It’s a huge learning curve that you have to push those folks through. What they’re doing in terms of the systems they’re putting in place to capture and transport that to the local utility, they’re really simple, and they’re very low pressure.
Cliff: The challenges here, again, really aren’t technical. It really isn’t. It’s just helping those partners, like you said, the people who aren’t historically gas producers. Educate them about the opportunity. How to do it effectively? How to do it efficiently? The one thing we can’t see happening in renewable natural gas anywhere in the system realistically.
As we move to these new forms of energy, we’ve got to minimize the negative outcomes. I was at a conference recently and somebody brought up and said, “We have to be safe. Safety is going to be the number one priority for renewable gas or hydrogen.” He used, as an example, “We can’t repeat what we did with shale gas.”
What happened with shale gas in the beginning, there were a lot of early adopters in the field that weren’t large companies. They were people who were out there aggressively trying to do the shale thing and didn’t think about all the safety and environmental impacts. Unfortunately, that gave us a very negative perception.
With this, we need to be very conscious, very deliberate, and ensure success from the get go. We can actually work it either in renewable natural gas or in hydrogen. We just need to get ahead of it and make sure safety is the first thing that we’re doing and not the last thing sometimes, which is what happened a little bit with the shale play. They got a very aggressive cowboy approach, which made sense at the time. It’s just a lot of opportunities there. Unfortunately, then we had some seepage and spills into the groundwater and that negatively impacted the opportunity that we had.
Russel: That’s often true with any new technology. That’s not just oil and gas. That’s any new technology. You need a certain kind of company, a certain kind of people, a certain kind of culture to make a new technology work, and then a different kind of people and culture to mature it.
Cliff: That’s a great observation. That’s one of the things exciting to see with the industry. We’ve had conversations before about SMS, the safety of management systems, and that’s really created a new philosophy, a new culture in our industry. As this stuff matures, we’re ready to move it in very easily.
Now we need to bring it down to the startup behavior as well with a new tech and be able to grab that as well to say, “If you’re planning in our industry, here’s our culture. Here’s our approach. Safety first, safety first.” That’s what we’re going to be able to do.
We’re seeing that much more in the hydrogen and in the CO2 and renewable gas conversations far more than I’ve ever seen before. A lot of it goes back to the SMS behavior.
Russel: Let’s talk about hydrogen. I’ve done a couple of podcasts on this subject. I find this subject fascinating because it seems like this is one of those places where there’s a huge amount of discordance between what we’re being asked to do as an industry and what we’re capable of doing as an industry. Nobody’s really addressing that dissonance. They’re just not.
They’re just, “Well, we need to do this, and here’s the policy. It’s going to happen this quickly.” They’re throwing lots of money at it. You start trying to engineer these projects and look at their safety and what impact they have on the lifecycle of assets and all that kind of stuff. I’ll just say this. I’m highly skeptical that we’re going to be doing hydrogen anytime soon.
I’d like to hear an alternative opinion because I don’t have any factual basis for that other than just what I’m hearing doesn’t connect. The dots aren’t connecting for me yet.
Cliff: You made a good statement there. How the policy is ahead of the technology, and it’s a very true statement in this case. It’s not an unusual behavior, but the gap is so big this time. It’s almost surprising. I’ve never seen it quite so large. The goal is apperable. We know that there is a climate issue that we have. We know that we have to do something about it. We have to change behaviors. One of the key constituents we know is dealing with the carbon emissions that we have. A low carbon future is agreed upon by our industry as definitely a benefit we want to get to. To do that, there are some technical gaps. Now, with that said, let’s make sure we understand hydrogen is not a new conversation. Hydrogen actually was discussed aggressively back in the ’70s.
Last time, we had an oil embargo, hydrogen was a key component of that conversation. There is phenomenal work the Department of Energy and other groups did in the 1970s that talked about how we move and transport hydrogen. Now, what happened after that? Why aren’t we doing hydrogen today for that reason? What happened was what we saw with ethanol. Natural gas and liquids became so inexpensive and so easy to do that hydrogen didn’t make sense financially. It was just too hard to do, too far to go. Even though we had some great research and a lot of technological gaps were overcome, there’s still more to be done now. Now you fast forward the 40 years where we are, 50 years where we are today, and think about how we do hydrogen?
What we’re looking for is a scale that we’ve never talked about before. The scale of hydrogen use that we want to do is unbelievable. There’s people who say, “Yeah, we can move 20 percent hydrogen. No big deal.” They use the Hawaii Gas experience as their basis of reality. Hawaii Gas has been moving hydrogen in a blended fashion at a high level for a while now and has been very successful. However, it’s mostly a distribution system. If you think of Hawaii, it’s a small state. There’s not a lot of long runs. Also, it’s really low pressure. That’s not something you’re going to see replicated in a huge transmission system in the United States. It’s just different, or they point to our friends in Europe and say, “Look, the UK can do this. They’re ready to move, possibly 100 percent hydrogen.” Their systems were built back after World War II and were designed to basically withstand anything. There are super thick wall onshore pipelines, which you’re not going to find here in the States either.
Those two equations don’t work for what our real situation is. Here in the US, you back up and go, “OK, our engineers, who’ve done a wonderful job, have said hydrogen is bad. Hydrogen gets into steel and it cracks. It creates a horrible situation for operations, so we must keep it away.” For as long as we possibly could, we’ve kept hydrogen away from our systems. Now we’re going to introduce anywhere from whatever people say 5, 10 to 100 percent hydrogen soon. How do we do that technically? There are some big holes. Now, will it become a critical part of our energy infrastructure? Good question. I don’t have an answer for you today. I do believe that within a 5- to 10-year window, we’ll figure out how to move it effectively.
If we are called upon to do it and it has to be part of the solution, we’ll do it. It’s there, but there are some large technical issues that we have to overcome. Like I said, the steel we have in our ground is different from what you see in Hawaii Gas or in the UK. We don’t have the thick wall opportunities. Ours are much more thin higher grade steels. Then we have some vintage stuff that’s been around for a while that has some challenges on its own just running natural gas so to put a new product in there that we actively tried to keep out, that’s going to be challenging.
PRCI, through the Emerging Fuels Institute, one of the key products we started with is material properties working with the Department of Energy. What steel can maintain its structure and safety, and still move hydrogen?
Russel: That conversation right there I want to pause and dig in a bit if I might because that conversation about the steel and about hydrogen and the impact of hydrogen at what concentration and at what pressure on a particular type of steel is more than just getting a general understanding. It’s about getting a very broad and detailed understanding so the integrity management people can do their work, because right now, they’d be guessing. They have no scientific basis for doing any of that analysis.
Cliff: There’s a process in the industry you’re probably familiar with called direct assessment, and a lot in the natural gas use it.
Cliff: Step one is the most important step of the four-step process. What does it say? Know your system. This is one of those things. We have to know our systems. If we know what we have in the ground and have a great confidence in that knowledge, we can move whatever product you want to move. We’ll figure out how to make it work. As you’re alluding to, if there’s a question about some of our systems that we don’t know, introducing a new variable, i.e., hydrogen, it’s going to be that, a new variable that’s hard to manage. Getting there is going to be a little bit challenging.
There’s a report that PRCI put out earlier this year that even questions any blend at any level as safe in the system. Now we’re doing additional studies to verify that because we do have people saying, “10 percent. No big deal,” like waving their hand mentality. The first study we did showed that any level of hydrogen puts a question mark automatically in your system. Instead of going to blend, it says it’s actually probably better to figure out how to do 100 percent hydrogen versus trying to do a blend.
Russel: That’s interesting. I saw an interesting presentation at AGA where they had done some analysis of the impact of hydrogen at certain concentrations up to 20 percent, and at a range of pressures, and with some different kinds of steel pipe. To me, it was very interesting what they found. They basically found that hydrogen has an impact. Simply stated, it shortens the useful life of the pipe.
The other thing that was very interesting to me is that a relatively short exposure, like a couple of weeks of exposure, to the higher concentration is plenty enough exposure to do all the damage you’re going to do. That was also interesting because that means if I don’t control the hydrogen concentration, then I’m going to end up impacting the useful life of my asset.
Those kinds of things and understanding the correlation between pressure and hydrogen concentration and the steel you have in the ground, and being able to do that analysis is going to be critical if we’re going to really do hydrogen.
Cliff: Yeah, the partial pressures are going to be the win. It’s not really the percent, it’s more the partial pressures that are going to drive the conversation. One of the engineers in our team, I was talking to him the other day. He goes, “Cliff, as soon as you put hydrogen in the system, it’s in the system.”
If it’s a five-mile run, it’s going to be in the entire thing. We won’t be able to control where it goes in the system because it’s going to be part of our process if we put it in a blended process. There is a drumbeat towards 100 percent hydrogen in the US. It’s kind of picking up steam. We’re not quite there yet as an organization saying that has to be the way you go, but the question that’s begun to be asked is, “Is 100 percent systems the best way to go? Is it the safest way to do it?” That then also says, “We’re gonna do purpose-built pipelines.”
That sounds really positive. The negative is that permitting is almost an impossibility for today’s systems. We’re going to put in a whole new network to support hydrogen? As you know too from that meeting at the American Petroleum Institute, API’s conference, the idea of a CO2 pipeline network, it’s the same thing. We’re going to build two brand new networks across the country to support our energy demands? I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen that permitting anywhere in the United States.
Russel: No, I absolutely agree with that. There was a really good presentation for the keynote at API. I think you saw that.
Russel: The guy that did the presentation, I’m working to try and get him on the podcast. He’s a chemical engineer who was, I think, CEO of Praxair, which is a cryogenics company. Now he runs the alternative energy program at the University of Houston. Really interesting presentation. A lot of science behind what he was talking about in terms of the energy transition versus policy. Being an engineer, I prefer science to policy. [laughs]
What I found really compelling about it was that I asked him, “How long before we’re going to do a new CO2 project at scale?” He said five years, and I smirked. He said, “If you have a follow-up, I’ll catch you after,” because what I wanted to say is, you’re not going to get anything permitted at scale in five years. That’s the problem.
Even the Summit project that they’re trying to do, they’re coming up against huge obstacles from a permitting standpoint, lots of resistance. PHMSA just put out a notice of preliminary rulemaking about, “Hey, we’re going to strengthen all the regulatory requirements around CO2.”
Cliff: It’s a real challenge against safety. It’s got to be the phrase. Unfortunately, we had an incident in Mississippi as an industry with a CO2 release in Mississippi. That has shaded a lot of the conversations. For some, that’s what they’re dealing with are some of the concerns that were raised in that situation.
The Pipeline Safety Trust came out with a report about a month ago now that had some huge question marks in CO2. It said, are there enough regulations? Is it going to be safe? Can we do it? I will tell you. I have a firm belief in our industry that we can do these things safely. Now, we have to have the will to do them safely. As I said before, that’s what we do. The research that’s needed is quite a bit. CO2 and hydrogen have a lot of similarities. We have a lot of knowledge on it. We’ve done it before. There’s miles of pipes of hydrogen. There’s miles of pipes of CO2, but what we’re talking about now is a whole other scale. The amount of assistance that we’re going to need is vastly different. The pressures we’re going to need are vastly different.
You talked about the missing gap on policy. We haven’t defined the end-use amount. What do we really need? What’s the demand? How much hydrogen do you need? That’s still unknown. The research is going to be a critical part of the story. We still need to figure out some of these underlying policy questions. Are hydrogen hubs going to be the wave of the future? Is that really how we’re going to do it? A hub and spoke approach. Great. What about those who aren’t near the hub? What do we do about those energy needs? It’s a more heart-to-heart conversation to be had.
Russel: There’s some big scale macroeconomic commercial conversations around all this that we’ve not settled out. The issue with CO2, again, that’s an oversimplification, but a lot of the CO2 that’s created is not near the geology of where you can reliably sequester it. It’s stored underground. That’s one challenge.
The other challenge is when you look at hydrogen, you have the same thing. To me, hydrogen makes more sense if I can self-contain an energy system that’s relying on hydrogen because now I can localize my entire infrastructure.
Cliff: If you could “unplug” a significant part of the grid to feed a community – let’s make up a term – a community, which could be in multiple states, but one centralized area to give this hub and spoke concept. If you can go down that path, there’s an opportunity there. Now the hubs that they’re talking about currently don’t align with a lot of our transmission systems today.
There is still going to be some need for some large investments on the infrastructure side. That’s a challenge. We’re going to have to do something different in the United States we haven’t done before. This is going to need a government/industry collaborative approach with some strong support from the government. That’s different for us. We haven’t done that before. To build the infrastructure we need, we need a 1950s infrastructure plan, which means we’re going to go out across the country and make a difference. It’s hard to do that. It’s something that I’ve been getting into conversation about.
Russel: Right. You’re absolutely right. I actually strongly agree with that statement, but my immediate reaction is, does the US even have the appetite or ability to embrace something like that in the end?
Cliff: I know.
Russel: Does anybody have the public relations capital to make something like that happen? I just don’t know.
Cliff: We’re busy yelling and screaming at each other. We don’t really talk to each other. The problem that we have is that we’re trying to yell at each other at these points, and that’s not going to be the way to get to this low-carbon future, which is what everybody wants to get to. This is an energy mosaic of the future.
We’re going to have hazardous liquids, we’re going to have natural gas, we’re going to have hydrogen, we’re going to have renewable natural gas, and something else to fill in the blank. We’re going to have a lot of sources of energy, and how do we do that effectively and efficiently? I mentioned the ’70s and the hydrogen projects. It’s also the last time we had a national energy policy. We don’t have an energy policy in the US which is desperately needed because these are conversations you’d have within that policy, saying, “Here’s where we want to go as a country to support and maintain our independence because we have done a great job becoming energy independent.”
“We want to stay that way. This new mosaic of the future, we need to be prepared for all sources of energy to be able to do that.”
Russel: I want to ask you a question. I don’t know what you were doing in the ’70s. I was in high school. [laughs]
Cliff: I was in elementary school. That’s OK.
Russel: What I do remember is the ’70s was all about clean water. I remember some great PR campaigns about the polluted waterways and all that kind of stuff. Even at that time, I remember conversations about, “We can’t do this. It’s too expensive. We can’t build all this effluent treatment, we can’t build all this water treatment,” on, and on, and on.
Now, you wouldn’t even contemplate building something with all that. It’s just built into the economics of whatever process you’re going to build that you’re going to have to be clean water. I view this whole push to carbon like that. We, as an industry, we, as a country, don’t yet really understand what we’re asking for and why, and it won’t make sense until we’re there.
Cliff: That’s a really interesting observation. Again, we’ve talked about a lot of different things today, but one of the things we haven’t talked about is changing the utilization patterns that we have. No matter what study you see or where you look, all it shows is a need for more energy, more energy, more energy, more energy.
Wow. That becomes challenging because the sources that we’re talking about, even if the highest capacity of hydrogen and water and when, we’re not going to be able to meet those demand curves. Unless we change our thought process in how we use energy, this is a really short-term conversation because we’re going to be so energy hungry, we won’t even care anymore.
It’s intriguing because you go around the globe and you look at some of these places. India, as you’ve probably seen before, still uses dung for a lot of places for energy. Really? Why haven’t we helped them to get natural gas or other sources? One of the most efficient energies in the world is nuclear. That’s on the bench, too, because of a few failures we’ve had around the globe.
Russel: They’re failures in a type of technology nobody would use these days to build a nuclear plant.
Cliff: Exactly. It’s all way past in history, but the public perception and political desire is bad, and so they’ve cut off that. We’ve got to have, again, an energy policy, an energy plan globally that we all can agree to and something that we all understand why we’re trying to get there.
We will do it like the ’70s clean water seemed impossible. Talking about the ’70s, and you were in high school. I was in elementary school just waiting in line with my dad in the car to get gas.
Russel: Oh, yeah.
Cliff: That’s not the problem anymore. Now it just costs too much. [laughs] Six bucks a gallon. That’s a different story.
Russel: The thing about the whole water conversation in the ’70s. There’s a whole lot of conversation about how much water we’re going to need for irrigation. At that time, there was no desalinization. There were huge conversations about water in the Middle East. Desalinization is now well understood, commercially viable.
They’re even talking about potentially doing desalinization on the Gulf Coast to augment irrigation, and that sort of thing. We’re in a very different place, and you’re going to see the same thing. I don’t remember where I read this, but years ago, I read an article that was written in 1895 in New York. It was about the problem with all the horses in New York City and the amount of horse manure. If we kept growing New York at the level that we’re growing it, we’re going to have horse manure on the streets 12-foot deep. I guess if we were running New York City on horses, that would probably be true, but…
Russel: …something shifted. There’s a shift coming, and a lot of what we’re doing is we’re trying to force the shift.
Cliff: That could be an interesting place to be because this time maybe instead of waiting for the switch to flip by itself, we do it. That’s a different place to be. We haven’t always been that way. I used to joke with my staff that there’s a 12-year- old kid who has all the solutions I’m looking for.
The switch is out there. The question is, how do we find the people or persons who have it to help us do this? There’s going to be a switch, and battery technology is going to make sense. We’re going to be able to store energy in batteries. It’s not there right now, but it will be.
Russel: It’s going to take some quantum shift in the current technology that we’re not anticipating yet.
Cliff: Exactly. Somebody will come up with it, and they’ll solve it. Before we know it, like, “Wow. Of course, we had that. This makes total sense now.”
Russel: Yeah, they’ll just be ubiquitous like cellphones.
Cliff: Exactly. Like clean water. That’s how that would be. We’re going to see that in our industry as the industry is going to be that way. We all refer back to the Tesla stuff, and Tesla had a point source energy going from one energy point under 200 miles away with no pipelines and no wires. It’s going to happen at some point, but we’re early in that process.
Russel: Let me try and wrap this up with some declarative statements just to say here’s what people working in pipelining ought to take away from this conversation because a lot of this stuff we’re talking about is long range and strategic and so forth. Here’s the things I think that people need to take away.
The drive to the low-carbon economy is a done deal. It’s here, and it’s coming like a freight train. Wherever you land on whether we need to or don’t need to or whatever, it’s coming. It’s very much like the clean water program back in the ’70s. That’s my first takeaway in what I’ve heard in the last six months or so.
That is a conversation that’s been simmering for a long time. They’re bringing it to a boil. It’s getting brought to a boil. That’s one takeaway.
The other takeaway is pipelines and traditional hydrocarbons are a part of the mix for a long time. The other part of the conversation is we all have a lot to learn because hydrogen and CO2 and RNG and some of these other things are also part of the mix.
Cliff: Now, you make some good points there. The first one is important to think about, and it’s how you phrased the conversation. I mentioned last year when we created the Emerging Fuels Institute, low carbon hadn’t become a thing yet. Most associations in the United States had low-carbon, low-emission statements in January of this calendar year for the first time.
This is a drumbeat, like you said, that’s picked up pace, and it will continue. COVID has been very interesting. It gave us a glimpse of what the future could be. If you remember, for whatever reason, there were negative oil prices for a couple or three days, and that was surreal. There was a decrease in users because nobody was going anywhere. I don’t think that’s going to be the future where no one goes anywhere, but it will have this low-carbon, low-emissions opportunity that has been shown to be possible. Now, we need to have the technology and the wherewithal of how to make it happen. Our industry has to be part of the solution. We can’t be the ones who go, “No. It’s never going to happen. It’s not going to…”
No. We’re in it. Let’s do this. Let’s make this reality. Then second, the most efficient way to transport product is via pipelines. Not trucks, not ships. It’s got to put it on pipelines. We have to build it on our pipelines. We need to make sure that our systems are strong if not stronger than they ever were before.
As you mentioned, hydrocarbons are part of the mosaic of energy in our future, but so is the next generation of fuels, whatever it may be. They had to be moved via pipelines. To do that, our infrastructure has to be set up.
We have to know what we’re maintaining. We have to know what we’re doing. We need to make sure that again, safety is our priority across the board. We have a lot of people looking for us.
Russel: We ought to actually have a conversation, Cliff, at some point about your take on pipeline safety management. I’ve been having that conversation with a lot of people. I’ve written a little manifesto that’s some vision casting I’m doing about what is our future. It goes more to our core business around software for management systems for pipelines and such.
There are some things we need to do that are going to require some collaboration across our industry.
The operators, the vendors, the associations like yourself, the research organizations, and the regulators are going to have to collaborate to get us to an order of magnitude improvement in our safety performance because there’s a lot that needs to happen there. We’re still very much in the infancy of that program.
Cliff: I would tell you it’s evolving nicely. There’s been a lot of companies who have come to it and come to it aggressively, but we need more. Like I said, it’s got to be our culture. Safety management has to be our culture.
Russel: Yeah. It’s a complete rethink about how we operate.
Cliff: It is. It’s looking at the asset differently. It’s not just an asset. It’s part of an infrastructure. It’s part of the fabric of society. One of the things about our industry we forget sometimes is that we’re an amazing public good, privately owned.
That gives us a huge responsibility. It’s a special class to be in. We do have a very big public good that we have to do because if there’s not pipelines, there’s not an economy in the United States just flat out period.
Russel: Without it, they’re freezing to death in their homes. I hate God forbid kind of declarations, but that is a reality of what we do.
Cliff: It’s just something we forget sometimes.
Russel: We don’t get food to the grocery stores. That is the reality of we’re not doing our job and doing it well.
Cliff: Every engineer, every pipeline person I’ve ever met keeps that as part of their ethos when they sit down and stop and think about what they do. They’re changing the world because of their business. We need to make sure people know that.
You’re changing the world because you have a pipeline running the industry that’s the backbone of our country. Without us, there’s not an economy. There’s flat out not. How do we do what we do differently, better? Like you said, safety has got to be it.
You mentioned another word that I have to go back and really focus on for a second. Collaboration is our future. We’ve done a lot in our industry historically. We’ve got to do it on steroids.
If we’re going to hit the energy demand opportunities that we’re seeing, the political things, by 2030, 2050, whatever you look at and the safety you want to do and do more, it’s got to be done collaboratively. This independent company approach is no longer there anymore. It’s got to be a collaborative approach.
Russel: This is the other thing I think is an important takeaway from this conversation. All this change, introduction of hydrogen, introduction of CO2, and other things that we’re doing to reduce emissions and so forth, change creates risk.
Cliff: It does.
Russel: Oftentimes, when you first implement change, your safety performance drops before it gets better. That goes back to this focus on safety management beyond just personal safety but asset safety and process safety. Process distinct from work meaning I’m looking at the integrity of the work and the efficacy of the work and that’s part of my practice.
Cliff: Before we began our call, we mentioned a couple things. There’s a great book that you mentioned that talks about the unfortunate failures in San Bruno and Marshall, Michigan that was written. It talked about safety. It was very well done.
The lead author’s name is Jan Hayes, from Australia. She does a really good job of talking about that and what it looks like and how it’s not just one person’s responsibility. It’s a team approach. It’s not just a piece of paper. It’s an attitude. It’s an ethos that we have to work through so it’s not just one and done.
Russel: It’s a culture.
Cliff: It’s a culture. She does a really good job in the book to really highlight that. If somebody in the audience hasn’t read it, I’d encourage you to pick it up. It’s a good read on what happened in those failures and how we can think differently.
That’s really what we’re looking to do. Our industry, let’s be transparent. We’re really, really good. That’s sometimes our problem. Because we’re really, really good, it’s hard to think change is important, but we’ve got to change and continue to evolve to continue to be relevant and vital. We want to be that. We need to be that. Our industry has got to think about it.
If we’re going to fail, as you mentioned, is a possibility when you make change, as long as you fail forward, life is groovy. If you fail and don’t learn from it, then shame on you. We can do this. We have to, through a collaborative approach, move this forward and really elevate our game quite a bit.
Russel: Listen, this has been a great conversation. Cliff, I always enjoy talking to you. It always gets my juices going, always makes me think about the importance of what it is we do for a living. Thanks for coming on, as always. I very much enjoyed the conversation.
Cliff: Hey, Russel, my friend, anytime. I enjoy the opportunity. Thanks for the platform today. Go and enjoy your adult beverage. Enjoy your weekend, my friend. We’ll talk to you soon.
Russel: Yeah. Ditto. Take care.
Cliff: See you, man.
Russel: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode of the Pipeliners Podcast and our conversation with Cliff. Just a reminder before you go. You should register to win our customized Pipeliners Podcast YETI tumbler. Simply visit the 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 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