In today’s bustling pipeline industry, what could be better than having someone with expertise and long-standing relationships with both operators and contractors as head of a major industry organization?
Meet Craig Meier, 2014 chairman of the influential INGAA Foundation who also happens to be president and CEO of Sunland Construction (see November 2013 P&GJ). Not only is Meier knowledgeable about what it takes to construct a pipeline safely and on time, but he also has the dedication that one looks into for a leader.
Meier joined the Eunice, LA-based Sunland pipeline construction firm in 1999 as a vice president and was promoted to president in 2010. In 2012, he also assumed the duties of chief executive officer. Today he manages all of Sunland Construction and affiliate business lines, including 14 division offices in 41 states. Sunland, which has been in business for nearly 40 years, employs an average 2,000 workers, and has a peak workforce of over 3,000 employees.
Meier is eager to lend his voice to help the public, elected officials and others understand how pipelines act as the crucial link in bringing new, low-cost, clean, domestic natural gas to markets. And, in turn, how pipelines help drive economic growth, while creating jobs and providing other economic benefits.
In this interview, Meier outlines his priorities for the INGAA Foundation.
P&GJ: What are your top priorities as INGAA chairman?
Meier: The role of the INGAA Foundation is to help facilitate the safe, efficient, reliable and environmentally responsible design, construction, operation and maintenance of the North American natural gas system to advance the delivery of natural gas for the benefit of the public, the economy and the environment. We do this through trusted analysis and studies and with workshops and other forums to promote dialogue and collaboration.
To reach that overarching goal, my main priorities are threefold:
1. Safety of the pipeline/facility assets and the workers that maintain, operate and construct them.
2. Maintaining the integrity of the assets (quality management, technology, regulations, integrity verification).
3. Communicating the benefits of natural gas and the vast pipeline infrastructure.
P&GJ: What actions do you hope to achieve that will ultimately prove rewarding for Foundation members?
Meier: This already is shaping up to be an exciting year for the Foundation. One of our big efforts will be the release of the Midstream Energy Infrastructure Study through 2035. This is the Foundation’s flagship study, and it helps provide the industry, as well as the investor community, reporters and others an idea of what’s in store for the industry in the next couple of decades. In our last report, released in June 2011, we studied oil and natural gas liquids infrastructure estimates, and we will continue to do that this year.
Our planned workshops and studies – on pipeline and construction safety (lessons learned), practical implementation of a construction Quality Management System (QMS), and on cybersecurity — will be particularly rewarding and valuable to our members.
P&GJ: There has been some emphasis to grow the Foundation. How do members feel about increasing the membership and having a wider range of services companies involved?
Meier: Our goal hasn’t been to grow the organization per se. That’s happened spontaneously as a result of the increased work being done in the natural gas industry. The shale gas revolution has had an extraordinary effect on America – on the environment, on energy security and on the economy.
Not surprisingly, more companies have been interested in joining the INGAA Foundation. At the beginning of 2010, we had 125 members. As of January 2014, membership had grown to 170 members. This is despite a dues increase in 2013 – our first since the Foundation was launched in 1990. So, you can see, the interest in this Foundation and its mission is keen.
P&GJ: What is the staff doing to encourage more participation than just attending the annual meetings? Are they sponsoring more workshops devoted to safety and other issues?
Meier: The INGAA Foundation gives a unique opportunity for the service provider sector to give back to the industry that has afforded us our livelihoods by sharing our knowledge, expertise and best practices that we have gained by working in all segments of the oil and gas industry.
We are sponsoring more workshops and the sharing of industry best practices. We find this is a good way to encourage participation among our members. We chose subjects that have wide appeal and that all companies need to know about. This year, we will host a series of three cybersecurity sessions, a detailed discussion of the FERC certification process, and a seminar on pipeline and construction safety in our yearly lessons learned workshop. This is a hands-on opportunity to share information and help the whole industry learn from each other to improve safety performance.
P&GJ: Have you seen a trend toward member companies becoming more proactive with social media to get their message out and blunt the opposition?
Meier: There always has been landowner opposition to pipelines, but there also has been greater emphasis on external stakeholder involvement in the process. We are seeing more activists going after pipelines as a way to stop upstream development of natural gas or oil. Sometimes those activists are opposed to the method of development of the fuel, but some are just opposed to fossil fuel use.
The pipeline companies sponsoring projects try to find out the opposition’s main concerns and address them. Our members use all sorts of tools – ranging from meetings with the public, local governments and public opinion leaders to social media and other forums – to explain the importance and benefits of a project. At one meeting last year, we actually had a presentation on effective communications strategies, including the use of social media, Spectra employed in its New York/New Jersey project. We are always trying to learn from each other and improve.
There is a strong need for the industry to do a better job of explaining the importance and benefits of natural gas and the role pipelines have in that. Pipelines are the safest and most efficient way to move energy.
P&GJ: When you talk with Foundation members, what do they express as their great concern?
Meier: Building and operating pipelines safely and keeping our employees safe are clearly our members’ highest priorities. The Foundation’s number one guiding principle states that. we have important programs on developing construction safety guidelines, lessons learned, best practices and other ways for our members to learn from each other. Our Safety Committee continues to monitor progress in these areas to ensure progress.
P&GJ: What can you tell us about any impact of pending legislation, and whether renewal of the Pipeline Safety Act is likely to happen in 2015?
Meier: The Pipeline Safety Act is not up for reauthorization until the next Congress (2015-2016). Still, through INGAA and other organizations, the industry is laying the groundwork for the next pipeline safety bill by informing lawmakers and their staff about INGAA’s voluntary commitments to achieve its goal of zero pipeline incidents. It’s an election year, so it will be difficult to get Congressional action on anything that is not a “must-pass” bill. However, we would like to continue making progress on legislation to improve pipeline permitting, which did pass the House last year.
P&GJ: What is your view of future construction prospects in the U.S. and where do you see the greatest need for new pipeline construction activity?
Meier: Prospects are bright for North American pipeline construction, and I suspect that our 2035 infrastructure report will bear that out. I can’t give you a preview of the report, but I think we will continue to see a lot of construction activity in the newer supply areas, like the Marcellus and Utica shales for natural gas and the Bakken and Eagle Ford for crude oil and natural gas liquids. The backbone of the U.S. natural gas pipeline network already is strong, so it’s little surprise that we’re now seeing a move toward more discrete lines that allow supplies – particularly from newer or rapidly growing supply areas – to get access to the vast pipeline network.
In addition, we continue to see pipelines being built to power generation plants being converted from coal to natural gas, as well as new plants being permitted and built to be fueled by natural gas. We’ve also seen some reverse flows and movement of gas in different directions to allow product to move efficiently to market, specifically related to the location of some of the more prolific shale plays in the Northeast.
P&GJ: What impact, if any, do you anticipate in pipeline infrastructure development as a result of this winter’s cold weather and some spot prices surging to record levels?
Meier: The cold weather has underscored the importance of adequate pipeline capacity, as well as the importance of natural gas storage facilities. In areas where pipeline capacity is constrained, prices spiked. While we certainly don’t wish ill for natural gas consumers, the point is that prices out of line with the rest of the country signal the need for infrastructure so that all consumers can enjoy the benefits of abundant natural gas.
P&GJ: Do you see this driving new construction in areas like upstate New York and New England where little pipeline infrastructure is located?
Meier: I think we will see some capacity additions. In New England, you have an interesting situation that has frustrated construction of new pipelines. The rules governing the electric power market in that region provide little incentive for power generators – a big user there of natural gas – to hold firm pipeline capacity. Long-term contracts for firm pipeline service are needed for interstate pipelines to make the huge capital commitments needed for building new infrastructure. So, while everyone recognizes that the region would benefit from more pipeline capacity, we still need to figure out who will hold the contracts to make the expansions happen. I think we will see more work on that, and hopefully a resolution, in the next year. We certainly are seeing increased interest by the governors of the New England states to find a resolution.
P&GJ: As we await an answer on Keystone XL, if it ultimately is blocked, would this make future construction of natural gas pipelines more difficult?
Meier: I mentioned earlier that we recognize that there is opposition to some pipeline projects that ultimately seek to oppose the fuel source. Keystone XL was really the first major project in which activists made the pipeline the focal point for their opposition to upstream development – in this case oil sands development in Western Canada. The issue is more about what is being transported (oil sands) than necessarily about the pipeline itself.
I think some environmental activists see the Keystone XL experience as offering a playbook, and they are looking to employ similar efforts to stop natural gas development.
Still, Keystone XL – and the controversy and politicization surrounding it – is in many ways an extraordinary situation. We believe one key to a successful project is to explain to stakeholders the critical importance of natural gas and pipeline transportation to the regional and national economy.
P&GJ: Do you see any legislative changes looming that could either delay or increase future pipeline construction?
Meier: There are a few pieces of legislation in various stages in the House of Representatives that could streamline pipeline permitting. One bill, sponsored by Mike Pompeo (R-KS) already has passed the House. Right now, however, there are no specific plans for Senate action.
P&GJ: What are some of the challenges that could affect continued growth of the natural gas business? Restrictions on fracking? Rail transportation?
Meier: There are a host of factors that can play into the growth of natural gas. How fast will the economy grow? Will the revitalization of American manufacturing continue? Will continued low natural gas prices keep production in liquids-rich areas? Will there be restrictions on fracking? How many LNG export facilities will be approved and built?
These are all valid questions, but we generally feel the prospects for natural gas are bright. When President Obama gave his State of the Union I was struck by his remarks about natural gas. It seems that he – and almost everyone in Washington – is finally recognizing what a lot of people in the producing areas have known for five years: the natural gas revolution is having an extraordinarily positive effect on America’s economy – think about all of the jobs associated with the manufacturing renaissance — its energy security, and the environment. For that reason, I think lawmakers will seek to encourage – not discourage – this natural gas revolution.
Rail transportation isn’t really an issue for the natural gas industry because almost all natural gas is moved via pipelines. Its physical makeup makes compression and shipping by rail or motor vehicle complicated and cost-prohibitive.
P&GJ: Opponents to natural gas development often use litigation to delay planned projects. Is anything being done to contest these efforts?
Meier: We certainly are aware of litigation and follow it when it comes up. INGAA has filed briefs in several lawsuits. Also, helping stakeholders to understand the hydraulic fracturing process and the safeguards employed to protect water supplies is very important to future success.
(Editor’s Note: Craig Meier will be a guest speaker at the 10th Annual Pipeline Opportunities Conference sponsored by Pipeline & Gas Journal along with INGAA and the INGAA Foundation.)