El Paso’s Dan Martin Determined To Prove Safety Is ‘Job One’ With Pipelines

April 2011 Vol. 238 No. 4

Jeff Share, Editor

I’ve always wondered, why do men and women enter the pipeline business?
Some would say it’s a special calling, vital for our lifestyles, and with it comes a special satisfaction in seeing a complicated job through to completion. It certainly can’t be the long hours away from home, the remote locations that pipeline workers are often sent for weeks, months, or even years on end, or the steady thumping of the ‘not in my backyard’ naysayers who reap the benefits — just as long as the projects don’t come close to their properties or otherwise touch their lives.

Chances are the answer has more to do with the constant challenge of designing and constructing needed pipeline infrastructure, putting pipe in the ground, and transporting natural gas and other energy fuels to consumers to meet market demand.

Today, more than 30 years after he first interviewed for a such a job more than 2,000 miles away from his home in the Northeast U.S., Dan Martin can’t exactly explain why he left his native Maine and became a pipeliner for the company that today is El Paso Corporation. According to Martin, 55, who earned a degree in civil engineering from the University of Maine, “I got into the industry right out of college. I didn’t know a great deal about it, but it provided an opportunity for me to see different things and start a challenging career.

“I have been immensely pleased since day one of starting work,” recalled the grandfather of two during a recent interview in his Houston office.

Today, he finds himself squarely in the middle of dealing with even more challenges, some of the most important challenges that likely have ever been faced by the natural gas pipeline industry, as a series of incidents — some fatal — have brought attention to the industry and operating companies. As such, Martin is one of many industry executives who are involved in reviewing operating guidelines and standards and bringing forth recommendations to improve pipeline construction, operations, integrity, and safety.

Martin is the 2011 chairman of The INGAA Foundation, a non-profit organization funded by pipeline companies, contractors, and service providers under the aegis of The Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA). Parenthetically, in 2010, Martin was named to the new post of Senior Vice President, Pipeline Safety, for El Paso Corporation, charged with overseeing the company’s pipeline safety programs in furtherance of the company’s commitment to safety.

During the interview, Martin outlined his goals as INGAA Foundation chairman. Much of the interview involved the implications of operating – and safety-related issues surrounding the San Bruno tragedy that killed eight Californians last September. There have been several legislative bills proposed and he also discussed the “Pipeline Transportation Safety Improvement Act of 2011” proposed Feb. 3 by Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ), Chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Surface Transportation, and Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV), Chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

The senators say the bill would strengthen pipeline safety oversight by the federal government while addressing long-standing safety issues, such as the use of automatic shutoff valves. One provision sure to find favor among pipeliners would be the elimination of exemptions and the requirement that all local and state government agencies and their contractors notify One-Call centers before digging.

P&GJ: What are your top priorities as Foundation chairman?

Martin: First and foremost it’s continuing to get the message out about the importance of natural gas and its role in the overall energy infrastructure of the U.S. There are challenges we face in meeting some of our energy needs. From an environmental perspective, natural gas has all of those qualities you want. From an energy security perspective, natural gas is a domestic supply that will be available for generations to come and will be essential as we grow the economy.

However, delivering natural gas to the consumer doesn’t come without challenges. We’ve had some very devastating incidents that are certainly a cause of concern for us, the general public and congressional legislators relating to the integrity of the infrastructure. A lot of our work is going to focus on what we can do to enhance the safety and integrity of the pipeline infrastructure in the U.S., and then, building upon that, how can we expand it to meet the needs of the U.S. with natural gas.

P&GJ: How will the Foundation specifically focus on safety issues involving pipeline infrastructure, as well as the safety of field workers?

Martin: We’ve had multiple projects under way. First, we have work under way to review and make recommendations regarding the quality of pipe being installed on new construction. There have been some concerns in the past about quality assurance/quality control on design and quality of pipe that is currently being installed. Those findings will be presented to the Foundation membership and made available to the public to show what we can do and have done to address the concerns in the quality of construction of facilities being built.

Second, we recognize we can always improve on worker safety. In late 2009, the Foundation appointed what has become a very active committee whose focus is construction and personnel safety. This builds on the strong programs that all of the membership had – not only the operators but the service providers and contractors. Again, this is something we want to make available to other member companies to demonstrate that we take very seriously the safety of the employees out there doing this job day in and day out.

Third, tying that into pipeline safety, we are reviewing the causes of the incidents that have occurred recently. The Foundation is very supportive of the initiatives needed to understand what’s going on. We need to truly understand what the causes were of the incidents that happened. Then we and the Foundation, can put on workshops, programs and studies that will then likely drive appropriate steps by the industry to help address these issues.

In the interim, the INGAA board has just put forward a board-level task force initiative to address pipeline safety. It will study many areas across a broad spectrum — not just looking at one situation — and what we can do about that.

Going forward, this will focus on INGAA’s Pipeline Safety Task Force’s Guiding Principles:
1. Our goal is zero incidents – a perfect record of safety and reliability for the national pipeline mapping system. We will work every day towards this goal.
2. We are committed to safety culture as a critical dimension to continuously improve our industry’s performance.
3. We will be relentless in our pursuit to improve by learning from the past and anticipating the future.
4. We are committed to applying integrity management principles on a system-wide basis.
5. We will engage our stakeholders from the local community to the national level, so they understand and participate in reducing risk.

There are many items in the Lautenberg-Rockefeller bill that can help make a difference in expanding the pipeline integrity management program. As we’ve analyzed it at El Paso and most likely the rest of the industry, we think it would continue to take us through that evolution to the next step of continuing to improve pipeline safety; but there will have to be some definitions that will be left to the regulators to determine how integrity management programs will be expanded outside of existing high consequence areas. There are also proposals to extend the program to gathering facilities.

If you look at the integrity management program, which says you will inspect high-consequence areas – it’s about 7% of the mileage. If you look at what we have actually in-line inspected as a result of that – because if you were doing an inline inspection with a launcher and a receiver on, you don’t just inspect around a subdivision, you do it between locations – maybe compressor station-to-compressor station or valves-to-valves. At the end of this program, although the industry reports only focus on the approximate 7% of the mileage within HCAs, the industry will have run tools well beyond the requirements set forth in the regulations, which we believe will be approximately 60-65% of the INGAA-related transmission infrastructure.

The opportunity we have is to find a way to put that information together to demonstrate to the regulators and the public that we have done much more than just the regulatory requirements.

Can we, should we, be doing more? I think that’s the next step, as we must continually strive to improve. In this regard, we have several initiatives under way. First, we are expanding transparency of our programs: We have a team working on this initiative through INGAA and the Foundation.

Second, we are looking at the use and application of automatic and remotely operated valves.

Third, we are reviewing technology solutions that will advance the industry’s safety and integrity programs.

Finally, we are looking at various integrity management program enhancements, along with many other items.

P&GJ: Have you witnessed a change in the mindset or culture of the industry?

Martin: I believe it goes back to when we had meetings with PHMSA and may have heard someone say ‘they were on a project and here was something problematic they observed’. Our reaction might have been that it was an isolated incident they saw and not that big an issue. But when they come back and described what they observed on another project, you realize that if it happens more than once or twice it means that it’s happening more than it needs to and could possibly happen elsewhere.

The interactions at the workshops opened the eyes of some folks, causing them to go back and re-look at their systems. When you evaluate your quality management systems you often find there are opportunities for improvement. It also makes you aware of the generational change in our industry’s workforce. We’ve got a new workforce that’s come in over time with individuals who may or may not understand how or why we developed those standards. So there are some educational opportunities as well within our ranks.

Ultimately, we need to continuously improve material quality, construction QA/QC, inspection practices, and training; and we are responding proactively to these issues.

P&GJ: How would you describe the industry’s relationship with PHMSA?

Martin: From an industry perspective, I would say in general we’ve had a good relationship over time. We both have the goal of having a safe network of pipelines throughout the country and our interests are therefore aligned. What I’ve seen is a dedication and commitment on both sides for getting better at what we collectively do. We’ve had to elevate the importance of active involvement within the operating community up to the executive level. We’ve had to show the regulators that it’s not just our technical folks but also the executives who are also supporting programs that we are going to put in place that will make the difference.

P&GJ: How has the industry responded since the San Bruno incident last September?

Martin: First, there is definite sorrow about what happened. I was there a couple of months after the event, and it takes your breath away. It stands as a reminder of the importance of why we do what we do and why we need to continue to enhance those efforts.

The first thing we have to do is monitor what happened out there and what the investigative agencies think the cause was. As we understand bits and pieces emerging from San Bruno or other events that have taken place, we need to continue to look internally and ask ourselves: ‘If that was us, how would we build that learning into the next step of integrity management?’ It’s vital to know precisely what happened, so we don’t go down the wrong path. That’s also why we have an industry board-level initiative under way.

P&GJ: Is the question of aging infrastructure being overblown?

Martin: It’s a logical question that people would ask, and I’ve had to answer it both internally and externally, and I think the industry has, as well. We’re not ignoring it; but in and of itself, the steel does not degrade over time. But that’s why there are reasons we have programs to protect the steel. The reason you put coating on that pipe is to protect the steel. The reason you have other cathodic protection and damage prevention programs in place is to continue to protect that steel. We know about certain manufacturing processes and time frames, so that you might have a specific program in place to ensure you are addressing the situation appropriately. This helps us verify that those pipeline systems still have the same required level of integrity as the day they were installed.

P&GJ: Is less attention being paid to the issue of greenhouse gas emissions?

Martin: We have a substantial team focused on greenhouse gas emissions – what’s the potential impact on infrastructure? How are we going to being able to meet the needs of delivering gas, and what are going to be some of the costs and modifications required on our systems to continue to be able to operate and meet those needs?

Setting the right standards is important. In previous years, we have done a lot to modify our equipment. If we have to change some of our equipment, there could be a rather substantial cost associated with that. Beyond dealing with greenhouse gases, we’re also preparing studies evaluating the growth of renewable electric generators and its effect on the natural gas infrastructure. Since wind and sunshine can vary, natural gas is well-situated in the mix and can start up very quickly. But, there are system engineering and customer service concerns. There is a need for much better communication between natural gas-fired generators backing up intermittent renewable generation and the pipeline companies that serve them, if the gas is going to be served on a firm and reliable basis.

P&GJ: What is your new role as El Paso’s Senior Vice President of Pipeline Safety?

Martin: I’d like to approach this answer from a macro view, as well as a micro view.

Safety is a top priority for the natural gas industry, and it is a core value, a part of our operating vision and philosophy, at El Paso. We’re committed to safety at an industry level and at an individual company level.

At a macro level, there have been enough of us in our business who have had to personally deal with high-profile incidents, and we always ask ourselves, ‘What can we learn from them so we don’t have any repeat occurrences? How can we improve?’

By continuous improvement, implementation of new technology, the addition of tried-and-true best practices, being more active in the industry and in industry associations, exchanging information, and other things, we are and will continue to improve across the industry. We’re more proactive, and we are doing more. But we can always improve. That’s the bottom line.

In our case, we have had our own wake-up calls and tragic events, such as the 2000 incident near Carlsbad, New Mexico. The industry also learned much from that event. Since then, we at El Paso have done a tremendous amount of work focusing on trying to eliminate events like that from ever happening again and implementing programs that enhance pipeline operation and safety. Since that event, we feel very strongly we’ve gone above and beyond the requirements of the regulations to make our systems piggable and so forth.

My new role is a further commitment to safety — and including our employees, contractors, landowners, and the general public. As I see my role, my objectives include advancing safety across the spectrum by continual interaction with the industry and regulators to make a difference for the industry, as well as El Paso.

P&GJ: How has the shale play affected the pipeline industry?

Martin: For those with E&P companies obviously that’s a benefit. But from a pipeline perspective, we haven’t seen the market growing in the same way we’ve seen the supply opportunities grow. With the market not growing and the supply being there, it’s really a shifting of some of the supply basins. With the Marcellus Shale, for example, close to consumption markets, instead of needing to bring the gas long distances from traditional supply areas all the way to the Northeast, you’re seeing a more regional shift in supply basins and a growth in regional infrastructure.

While there will be some pipeline infrastructure required in particular areas, you have to look at markets overall and future opportunities. Shale plays could also change some of the flow dynamics in the pipeline systems. Traditionally, if you flowed from south to north, there were opportunities that resulted. Now, with the – Marcellus in particular – we are seeing opportunities to flow from the north to the south. In addition, supply diversity is another opportunity that’s going to be there and will then lend itself to market development.

P&GJ: It seems the natural gas industry has tried to take a middle of the road approach politically in pushing the benefits of gas.

Martin: When you combine all of the positive attributes — the abundant supply of natural gas to meet the nation’s needs and help solve some of the environmental problems — I don’t know that we ever have been able to say that as strongly as we can today. That’s part of the reason why we as an industry can be so confident: Natural gas is there, it’s readily available, and as a clean, environmentally friendly commodity, it has proven that it is going to be there for many generations to come. Most recently, we are seeing opportunities to export gas. We’ve got a good message, and we must continue to get that message out.

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