There are more literally more issues than days of the year to deal with if you’re an executive in the oil and gas pipeline industry today. From construction safety to dealing with pushback issues stoked by the anti-fossil fuel movement, Thomas D. Hutchins can tell you all about that, and more, if there is enough time. Not only is Hutchins vice president of Health, Safety and Environment for Kinder Morgan’s natural gas business segment, he is also 2017 chairman of the influential (Interstate Natural Gas Association of America) INGAA Foundation.
Hutchins has worked in the pipeline and energy industry for over 30 years, involved with field engineering, project management, operations, and environment, health and safety. He is a graduate from New Mexico State University with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. Hutchins started his career as a field engineer, building pipelines and compressor stations for El Paso Natural Gas, now one of Kinder Morgan’s interstate pipelines. He later received a Master of Business Administration. Hutchins also was a project engineer and project manager for the International Boundary & Water Commission, an agency of the U.S. State Department.
In this interview, Hutchins, who was the keynote speaker at P&GJ’s annual Pipeline Opportunities Conference on March 21, discusses the issues of concern to the organization and gas transmission industry, of which there are many.
P&GJ: Tom, what are your leading priorities as the 2017 INGAA Foundation Chairman?
Hutchins: My main priority is to increase engagement from Foundation members and their employees. The INGAA Foundation has more than 200 member companies ranging from natural gas pipeline operators to companies that provide goods and services to natural gas transmission pipelines. Due to its size and the wide scope of companies represented, the Foundation has the potential to influence issues that impact the industry.
Increasing engagement is essential because we need all Foundation members and employees involved in our efforts to counter opposition to energy infrastructure projects and the industry as a whole. We must help people understand the value the natural gas we deliver brings to our quality of life and our economic and energy security. I also want the Foundation to continue supporting our industry in delivering natural gas to the consumer in a safe, reliable, cost-effective and environmentally protective manner.
P&GJ: What impact do you think the Trump administration will have on energy infrastructure projects?
Hutchins: I expect the new administration will work to streamline the permitting approval process for energy infrastructure projects while protecting the environment and driving job creation and the construction of needed new infrastructure.
P&GJ: How will the current lack of a FERC quorum impact the development of energy projects?
Hutchins: New projects that have filed 7(c) applications with FERC will be held up until at least one more commissioner is added to FERC. We believe the administration understands the issue and will work quickly to fill the open positions. If there are delays, the Foundation will help INGAA reinforce the urgency of filling these vacant positions.
P&GJ: Are you concerned that the industry will continue to face opposition to future energy infrastructure development?
Hutchins: I believe we have already seen an increase in activity from opposition groups and individuals following the election. They’ve used the election results and their concerns about the new administration to drive fundraising efforts and rally support for the opposition movement. We are very concerned by some of the opposition tactics, such as damaging construction project equipment and seeking to disrupt existing operations by tampering with valves and other equipment. The potentially serious, unintended consequences from their actions could include injury to themselves, those employed by pipeline companies and their contractors, and the public.
P&GJ: At the November Foundation meeting in Pebble Beach, you and your fellow panelists made an excellent presentation on counteracting the “pushback” issues. What has changed as to how operators now deal with this problem? What constitutes a successful strategy?
Hutchins: The level of engagement from operators and Foundation members in countering the “pushback” issues, including eminent domain and climate change, has increased and is becoming more consistent. From an operations perspective, all functions (environmental, health & safety, project management, engineering, business development, regulatory, security, legislative, communications and others) are involved in developing the strategic and tactical plans to address the challenges facing our projects. We, as operators, are also engaging the Foundation members to leverage their input and support in developing and executing the strategies. I believe the operating members, with the support of the Foundation, can develop a model that will be successful going forward.
P&GJ: Has the natural gas industry learned anything from the high-profile DAPL and Keystone controversies, even though they are not natural gas infrastructure projects?
Hutchins: Definitely. On the positive side, we now have a better understanding of the importance of early and frequent communication with Native American tribal representatives – and also with the public in general. We want them to know that we care about their concerns and want to address them early in our planning and construction phases.
P&GJ: Would a less-intensive regulatory structure make the pipeline industry less safe?
Hutchins: I do not think that a less-intensive regulatory structure would make the pipeline industry less safe because INGAA and the INGAA Foundation will always remain focused on making sure our industry and pipelines continue to be the safest way to transport natural gas. Our goal is to continue developing technology and practices that drive continuous improvements in pipeline safety and integrity. Remember, companies have a financial incentive to keep the gas in the pipe, and deliver that gas safely and reliably to customers.
P&GJ: Is the INGAA Foundation working on any important studies, and when might they be released?
Hutchins: Each year, the Foundation supports studies and workshops that are designed to help drive continuous improvements to the industry and address questions and issues the industry is facing. The 2017 list currently includes workshops to continue enhancing our safety culture; workshops to identify ways to continue improving our pipeline integrity tools; a workshop to discuss the best ways to manage storage well integrity issues; and a workshop with FERC, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal agencies involved in the project-permitting process to identify roadblocks and develop ways to make the project-permitting process more efficient and effective.
The Foundation’s list of studies for 2017 currently includes evaluating how natural gas will support an environment with more renewable energy sources, evaluating the impacts of the lower ozone standard, and a study and workshop looking at the best way to use inline inspection tools to identify the pipeline material properties. The goal is to complete the workshops and studies by the end of the year. Continuing to strengthen our safety culture, pipeline safety and integrity are initiatives that are part of the Foundation’s drive to zero incidents
P&GJ: Fossil fuels, especially natural gas, are expected to account for the majority of the U.S. fuel mix for years to come – what is the industry doing to mitigate impacts of climate change?
Hutchins: INGAA and INGAA Foundation members are continuing to develop equipment, technologies and practices to manage and minimize greenhouse gas emissions. For example, we continually look for utilization of the right horsepower to compress natural gas to the customer and minimize carbon emissions. Safely, efficiently and effectively operating our facilities will contribute to reducing GHG emissions, and we are already starting to see these results.
Carbon dioxide emissions are back to 1993 levels even though, during that same period, the U.S. population has grown by 60 million, GDP is up 70% and overall electric power generation has increased by 28%. The GHG reductions are mainly due to natural gas-fired electric generation increasing its share of the total electricity generating mix from 13% to 33%. Additionally, while domestic natural gas production grew 45% from 1990-2014, methane emissions actually declined 6%.
P&GJ: How do you keep a growing Foundation membership focused on the organization’s goals?
Hutchins: We leverage the Foundation’s staff and executive committee to stay focused on the studies, workshops and projects that are most valuable to the INGAA operators and INGAA Foundation members. The Foundation members all desire to help the operating members be successful, and staying focused is not as difficult as people might expect.
P&GJ: How did you get into the industry, what has motivated you to stay in the industry for over 30 years, and what have been the most significant changes over the years?
Hutchins: After graduating with a degree in civil engineering, I wanted to be a part of building stuff. As a young field engineer, I was able to work with project team members and contractors to design, construct and put into service pipelines, compressor stations and storage fields. I also wanted to perform challenging and meaningful work.
The work we do in building, operating and maintaining natural gas facilities is challenging and meaningful because of the contributions we make to improve the environment, economy and everyday lives of Americans. Furthermore, as an EH&S professional, I get to help people go home safely ever yday and work to make our industry even more environmentally friendly. Who could have a better job?
Some of the most significant, positive changes I’ve seen have been the increased commitment to safety and building a strong safety culture, along with the technological advancements in designing, building and operating natural gas facilities. The challenges include the increased regulatory burden placed on operators and the growing opposition to our projects and operations. As operators and INGAA Foundation members, we must – and, I believe, ultimately will – successfully address these challenges.