According to the EIA, there are more than 200 natural gas pipeline systems in the United States. Within these systems are more than 300,000 miles of interstate and intrastate transmission pipelines, along with another 2.1 million miles of distribution pipelines. These numbers increase every year along with the age of previously installed pipelines. Emotionally charged protesters, media, state and government officials are quick to respond when an incident occurs.
Take away TransCanada’s recent spill on the highly publicized Keystone XL project, the last really big newsmaker was PG&E’s 2010 San Bruno, CA rupture. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), that rupture produced a crater about 72 feet long by 26 feet wide, released approximately 47.6 million standard cubic feet of natural gas, resulted in a fire that included eight fatalities, destroyed 38 homes and damaged 70 others.
I received three separate phone calls from the California media that evening even though I was working for Kinder Morgan at the time. The media had their perfect storm, and they were not waiting for someone to come forward to take responsibility. In their business they can’t afford to wait as they compete every day against their affiliate rivals. Wins are determined by who broadcasts first or who has an exclusive. So when an incident occurs it usually means to hell with the facts, as the desire to be first almost always leads to misinformation, wild speculation and hysteric eyewitness interviews. Case in point, the media initially portrayed the PG&E rupture as a plane crash.
I’ve been on both sides of this fence spending a dozen years in the television news media and over 15 years as a company spokesperson, media relations/emergency response specialist, so I have a good basis for knowing what both sides are hoping to accomplish during an incident.
The majority of energy companies work extremely hard to keep their people and equipment safe. Though rare, incidents still happen and they draw ire and contempt from numerous sources, and while companies may do everything they can to prevent an incident from ever occurring, they are not always as prepared for the aftermath once one does.
Millions are spent training company personnel on how to perform their job responsibilities, but training should also be included in the event something goes wrong. Emergency response drills conducted periodically are a great way to train and educate employees on responding to an emergency. The same training should also be included for emergency responders and communications professionals.
In this month’s issue, P&GJ contacted several communications professionals to discuss their use of the Incident Command System (ICS) and how it has helped them during crisis situations. The (ICS was initially developed to address problems of inter-agency responses to wildfires in California and Arizona but it has evolved into use in all-hazards situations, ranging from active shootings to HazMat scenes, including pipeline ruptures. ICS consists of a standard management hierarchy and procedures for managing temporary incident(s) of any size. In recent years, an emphasis on “safety” has been paramount in the pipeline industry and, while “zero incidents” is always the goal it’s still a good idea to be prepared, in the field or in front of the camera.