Shell Sets The Pace In Promoting Pipeline Safety

June 2010 Vol. 237 No. 6

An estimated 2.7 million television viewers across the country witnessed the climactic finish of the April 25 NASCAR race in Talladega, FL as driver Kevin Harvick sped past a competitor to capture the lead in the final lap. For Shell, principal sponsor of Harvick’s high-performance car, the event represented a double victory.

It reaffirmed the company’s decision to support Harvick and others on the Richard Childress Racing team, aligning Shell products with a winner on the track. And, it provided significant visibility for a critical pipeline safety message.

In addition to the Shell Pecten and the logo of Pennzoil, Shell’s leading lubricants brand, the car carried these words: “811. Know what’s below. Call before you dig.” The slogan reminded viewers that a phone call to this number could help prevent damage to pipelines and other underground utility lines, which could cause injuries, environmental incidents and service outages.

That extra effort to promote pipeline safety marked another milestone in Shell’s ongoing involvement in the Common Ground Alliance (CGA), an organization comprising representatives of the underground utility industry who are dedicated to reducing damage to buried facilities. As CGA President Bob Kipp explained, “NASCAR is a target market for us because a lot of…workers, homeowners and people who do a lot of digging watch the races.”


Common Ground Alliance’s First Ever President’s Award Goes To Shell And Is Accepted by Mary Mujica (left).

It is that kind of creative thinking to put 811 in the public’s eye, Kipp said, that prompted CGA to honor Shell with its first-ever President’s Award, citing the company’s “leadership and innovation in efforts made to protect people, property and the environment.”

Protecting The Pipelines
About 165,000 miles of petroleum pipelines crisscross the country, carrying almost 6.8 billion barrels of crude oil and almost 6.6 billion barrels of refined petroleum products annually. According to Department of Transportation (DoT) statistics, pipelines are the safest method of transporting gasoline, diesel, heating fuel and jet fuel, and by reducing the volume that must be moved by truck or train, they make the roads and railways safer for travelers.

As the population has grown, so, too, has the demand for more pipelines to transport petroleum products. With this population growth, the wide-open spaces that once overlaid pipelines have been developed into subdivisions, shopping centers and streets. According to Andrew Black, president and CEO of the American Association of Oil Pipelines, more than 40% of liquid pipelines now run below high-consequence areas, including populated and environmentally sensitive areas and commercially navigable waterways.

To help prevent damage to pipelines and other utility lines, 62 call centers with toll-free 800 numbers have been established across the country for people to contact before beginning an excavation project. The centers notify companies with buried facilities nearby; representatives of companies whose lines could be jeopardized meet with the excavators, mark the lines’ location and provide information about safe digging practices.

“The problem, however, is that the centers’ names aren’t consistent,” Kipp explained. “Many people couldn’t find the number in the phone book in the past, and they often wouldn’t bother searching.”

As a result, damage from digging has become a leading cause of pipeline failure. Over the past decade, excavation has accounted for about 30% of releases that are significant because of their volume or because they resulted in an injury or fatality, Black reported.

To address this issue, the DoT brought about 160 industry professionals together in the late 1990s to identify methods of damage prevention. They submitted a 260-page report outlining 133 best practices to Congress in August 1999.

After completing the study, the group continued to meet to promote implementation of these practices. In 2000, they formed the Common Ground Alliance; Kipp became its first president in 2001. Today, the association has more than 1,400 individual and 185 corporate members representing every facet of the underground utility industry.

“When I first began visiting our member companies, virtually all of them would tell me that about 50% of their damages were caused by people who didn’t call before they dug,” Kipp recalled.

In testimony before Congress, he suggested establishing a single, three-digit phone number that could be dialed anywhere in the country and be routed to the closest one-call center. The result was 811, which took effect May 1, 2007. Since then, CGA has worked aggressively to build public awareness through activities ranging from conducting a national “Call Before You Dig” promotional campaign to establishing a website to provide information on the call-before-you-dig process to convincing the Senate and more than 40 state governors to declare April as National Safe Digging Month. However, Kipp made this point: “The most powerful part of CGA is that our members do all the work and are committed to reducing damages.”

Spreading The Word
With more than 4,900 miles of pipeline transporting more than 2 billion barrels of crude oil and refined products annually, Shell has a vested interest in promoting pipeline safety, and it employs a variety of methods to protect these assets and the people who live along their routes. Employees in Shell Pipeline’s control center in Houston monitor the pipelines electronically around the clock; if they detect a drop in pressure, they immediately shut down the line to isolate the emergency and minimize leaks.

Smart pigs are used periodically to collect data on the pipelines’ physical condition. Aerial surveys using helicopters and twin-engine planes routinely do flyovers along the pipeline rights of way looking for excavation activity or ground discoloration that could indicate a leak. Technicians regularly ride the routes checking for possible encroachments.

“The pipelines often run under streets and backyards, so the right-of-way technicians get to know the community and its residents,” Clorinda Nothstein, Shell Pipeline’s Western Operations Regional Manager, explained.

Despite these efforts, Shell’s pipelines are damaged by diggers several times each year. “Without our surveillance program, it could have been worse,” Greg Smith, Operations Regional Manager for the Gulf of Mexico, said. “We’ve had a considerable number of near misses when we’ve found people who were digging in our right of way.”

Not surprisingly, Shell has been a major supporter of the CGA since the association was formed and plays a prominent role in promoting pipeline safety. The company advertises the 811 number in such magazines as Louisiana Wildlife and Texas Coop Magazine. It posts information about the call-before-you-dig process on its website. In addition, Shell representatives make presentations about pipelines and pipeline safety at schools along its rights of way.

“We give out coloring books to kids at elementary schools,” Smith noted, “and encourage them to tell their parents what they learned about pipelines and how to recognize where they are.”

The 811 number receives high visibility at Shell-sponsored events such as the Shell Houston Open golf tournament, New Orleans JazzFest and Shell Eco-Marathon, which challenges student teams from around the world to design, build and test energy-efficient vehicles. It’s also promoted at special events and in special mailings for excavators, public and emergency officials and residents along Shell’s pipeline routes.

“We provide brochures and information to company employees so if they meet stakeholders in the course of their jobs, they can talk to them about the importance of calling before they dig,” added Regulatory Services Representative Gweneyette Broussard. “The more often we communicate the message to these stakeholders, the greater the opportunity for them to retain it and act on it.”

Leading By Example
As Kipp pointed out, “When it comes to pipeline safety, Shell not only talks the talk but walks the walk, starting from the top of the organization. At our annual meeting last year, Shell Pipeline President Mary Mujica told attendees about what Shell does to prevent pipeline damage, and she challenged all the rest of the companies to do more.”

Some CGA members are taking Mujica up on that challenge. After Shell became the first company to contribute $100,000 to the association in 2007, earning it recognition as a Platinum Sponsor, others followed suit.

“Until then, we had only five Gold Sponsors who contributed $50,000 each,” Kipp reported. “Now we have six Platinum Sponsors.”

Shell painted the 811 number in 30-foot-high letters on one of its tanks near Carson, CA, where millions of people can see it each year. “Now another company has painted one of its tanks on the Pennsylvania turnpike, and Shell is now planning to paint a tank in Houston,” Kipp said.

And, of course, there’s NASCAR. Shell first posted the 811 number on Harvick’s Chevy at a race in Homestead, Fla., in 2009. This year, another CGA member, 3M, joined Shell in displaying the pipeline safety message on the car it sponsored at Talladega. “We saw an uptick in calls to one-call centers the day after the race,” Kipp said.

All these promotional efforts are paying off. In 2004, about 200,000 pipeline incidents occurred because excavators failed to notify one-call centers. By 2008, that total had dropped to about 75,000, according to Kipp.

Shell’s contribution to this safety success prompted CGA to institute a special honor, the President’s Award, and present it to Shell Pipeline. “We’ve recognized individuals – for example, Gweneyette Broussard was chosen this year as our Member of the Year – but this is the first time we’ve honored an entire company,” Kipp explained.

CGA’s award wasn’t the first time Shell had been recognized for its role in preventing pipeline damage. In 2007, DoT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration honored the company for outstanding pipeline safety efforts and leadership in promoting industry and public excavation awareness.

However, as Broussard pointed out, “The President’s Award is recognition from our peers. The entire underground infrastructure industry is acknowledging the effort Shell has put in, year after year, toward damage prevention.”

Challenges Ahead
Although progress has been made, there still is much work to be done to boost public awareness of 811 and the need to call before digging. “CGA’s mission remains vitally important, and it’s critical that we continue to build on the last 10 years of progress,” Mujica commented in accepting the President’s Award. “As companies operating in close proximity to schools, homes, public roadways and businesses, we cannot shrink from the immense responsibility we have.

“If we’ve learned anything over the past 10 years it’s that we, as a united coalition, have the ability to truly impact public safety,” she concluded. “Our task moving forward is figuring out new, innovative ways to make safety real to the people in the communities in which we operate.”