Many challenges face the oil and gas pipeline industry. Chief among them are regulatory constraints and third-party opposition. However, an increasingly united coalition of trade associations and individual stakeholder companies are working to shape permitting policies and public opinion to ensure pipelines are built, operated and maintained safely and efficiently.
Domestic and global energy demand continues to grow, and North American oil and gas production has grown alongside. The problem is transporting the product to the end-user. More pipelines are needed to ease supply bottlenecks and ensure energy demands are met.
Despite high-profile incidents, such as the tragic explosions in Massachusetts on Sept. 13, pipelines remain the safest means of transportation for oil and gas compared to alternative means, such as truck or rail, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which operates under the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Pipelines are also more efficient. A network of more than 2.6 million miles of pipelines in the United States deliver trillions of cubic feet of natural gas and more than 19 million barrels per day of liquid petroleum products each year, according to U.S. government data. By contrast, it would take a constant line of tanker trucks, about 750 per day, loading up and moving out every two minutes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to move the same volume as a single pipeline. The railroad equivalent would be a train of 75 tank cars, each with a capacity of 2,000 barrels, delivered daily.
With the U.S. energy industry booming, pipeline infrastructure must expand to bring the production to the manufacturing facilities and ultimately to the end consumers, says Tim Aydt, president of Findlay, Ohio-based Marathon Pipe Line LLC (MPL), a subsidiary of MPLX LP, which is a diversified, growth-oriented master limited partnership formed by Marathon Petroleum Corp. (MPC) to own, operate, develop and acquire midstream energy infrastructure assets.
“But pipelines enable more than oil and gas production,” Aydt adds, “they enable a larger industry that supports millions of jobs, creates life-saving products, provides affordable basic utilities and helps bring people out of energy poverty.”
Aydt points to the large number of products that oil and gas make possible, including plastics, pharmaceuticals, cellular phones, clothing fibers, building materials and more, which “we all demand and depend on daily to make modern life possible.”
To aid the safe and efficient development of pipelines, energy industry stakeholders are ramping up advocacy efforts to expand support for these development efforts. Individual companies like MPL and industry associations such as the American Petroleum Institute (API), the American Pipeline Contractors Association (APCA), the Distribution Contractors Association (DCA), the Interstate Natural Gas Association of American (INGAA), the Pipe Line Contractors Association (PLCA) and many others are working together to get the message out through a combination of federal and state government advocacy efforts, letter writing campaigns, social media, community engagement, public forums and other avenues.
Creating jobs, however, is not the only benefit that pipeline projects provide, says Eben Wyman, principal at Wyman Associates, a government relations firm based in Washington, D.C., which has served DCA as its client since 2012.
“We must make the case that these projects do more than create jobs,” he says. “That’s important, and it’s one of the industry’s strongest arguments, but there’s also a need for them. I would point to the bottleneck we’re experiencing in the Northeast. Boston is not getting enough energy, so they bought natural gas from Russia. You could make the case that that’s a national security issue.”
The biggest thing that Wyman says industry stakeholders must do is “show up and do their part to persuade federal, state and local officials that we need more pipelines.
While DCA has been involved with efforts to reform the pipeline permitting process and other federal issues, Wyman stresses the importance of attending local townhall forums in support of projects. Aydt believes community events also provide opportunities for pipeline advocacy.
“Social media, community engagement, government lobbying and public education are all important,” Aydt says. “MPL works to share the advocacy and educational messages within its existing public engagement efforts. We have booths at state fairs, sponsor landowner focus groups and picnics at various venues, and make multiple presentations to residents, schools and communities on pipeline safety, energy advocacy and other important messages.”
Misinformation represents one of the biggest challenges to winning the argument in favor of pipelines, says Stuart Saulters, policy advisor at API for its downstream and industry operations division.
“There are a lot of opinions out there,” he says. “That’s good. I’m not saying social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are bad, but there are a lot of false messages coming at us.”
To combat these messages, Saulters says the pipeline industry must engage “the right audience with the right message through the right avenues.” While the API and other groups have created commercials and other campaigns to reach the public, the industry must go a step further.
“We have to educate our neighbors, so they’re not always hearing directly from industry stakeholders. If your neighbors and friends tell you that energy is good, you’re more likely to believe it. We’re trying to push back against all the negative messaging and make sure the message of positive pipelines is heard.”
One way to combat misinformation, Aydt says, is for companies involved in the pipeline industry to educate its employees “about the challenges facing our industry and empower them to advocate for pipelines in their communities when needed.”
Early last year, MPL started its “E2 – Engaged in Energy” initiative, which is an internal company program aimed at educating employees on the benefits of oil, providing a global energy perspective and sharing with the public the benefits of oil and pipelines.
“We use our E2 – Engaged in Energy platform to communicate advocacy messages on pipelines, as well as the larger energy advocacy,” he says. “In short, it’s an initiative to engage MPL employees in understanding the benefits of petroleum and the global view of energy so that we can engage in the conversation and become advocates for our industry.”
MPL also integrates this “energy champions” message into all public awareness and engagement activities it conducts.
“Some examples include taking our message into the schools with fun and interactive programs for students,” Aydt says. “We also include advocacy efforts on pipelines and the benefits of petroleum in our landowner communications and 811 events and correspondence. Last, we engage the public and emergency responders at local events to offer additional educational opportunities.”
One of the greatest resources available to companies and trade associations are the people who work in the oil and gas pipeline industry. These everyday folks can help provide a more personal connection to the pipeline industry for their friends and neighbors.
“Employees and their stories are a valuable and underused resource for advocacy,” Aydt says. “Every individual has a trusted circle of influence. By sharing their story and providing an informed opinion to others, they can impact change and assure all sides of the issue are considered. When we educate our employees and others, they are more confident in their position and are more willing to speak up for our industry and the good it does for society.
“Our employees live, work and raise families in the communities where our industry is under fire, and their perspectives and voices need to be heard.”
The PLCA is relative newcomer to the pipeline advocacy coalition, says Rob Riess, president of the PLCA and vice president and pipeline division manager at Henkels & McCoy Inc. Historically, the association was primarily focused on negotiating industry labor agreements with the four craft unions that make up the industry’s workforce: The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA), International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) and the United Association of Journeyman and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry (UA). However, changes in the industry led the PLCA to become a more active participant in supporting the pipeline industry.
“Our industry is facing enormous challenges that affect our ability to plan and execute our projects as efficiently as we have in the past,” Riess says. “Today, we are losing the ability to control and perform our work. Increasingly, we find ourselves head-to-head with powerful adversarial groups compelling the PLCA to take a stronger stand for the pipeline advocacy.”
The association recognized a need for the pipeline industry to work more closely together, says Elizabeth Worrell, who joined the PLCA in 2017 and assumed the role of managing director and chief legal counsel in January.
“This is an all-hands-on-deck kind of moment,” she says. “The pipeline industry is facing challenges on so many levels, from a political standpoint, regulatory concerns, grassroots activism and the media. There may have been a time when the industry did not coordinate, when it was everyone for themselves, but we all have to be working together now.”
The PLCA is now trying to better promote the work it does and educate the public about the positive impacts of the pipeline industry.
“We have to work to support the industry, and the industry needs to make the case for pipelines,” Worrell says. “The PLCA felt we had to be part of this coalition and do our part to protect and grow the industry. We want to get out and educate people about who we are, and let them know we’re a credible voice in the pipeline industry, that we’re focused on the best interests of the industry and the best interests of the people who work in pipeline-related jobs each day. We work with our members to develop and promote safety, quality, environmental compliance, etc. We have to continue to work together on industry initiatives and legislative and regulatory strategies and find ways to promote the good things the industry does. We have a good story to tell. We have to do a better job of telling it.”
One story that Worrell believes doesn’t get told enough is the economic impact of the pipeline industry on local communities and the national economy.
“It’s something we won’t hear from the opposition,” she says. “What people don’t realize is that there’s a whole supply chain, with businesses and workers all over the country, who form the backbone of the industry. The jobs we create, the important construction and infrastructure work that our members perform and our commitment through the PLCA’s partnership with industry trade unions to provide our workers fair pay, the safest working conditions possible and excellent benefits, we should be proud of that as an industry. We should be telling that side more.”
The other side of pipeline advocacy has to do with shaping regulations. There too, Saulters says, a united front is important.
“From a regulatory standpoint, it’s really good to speak as one voice,” he says. “The primary value of a trade association is we can come in as a unified front.”
While API’s more than 600 members represent a majority of the companies involved with liquids production and transportation, the association also partners with other groups, such as INGAA, to provide one voice when it comes to working with PHMSA, Congress and other regulators.
“We work with our members to hash out a position, and then we can advocate for that position as a whole,” Saulters says. “The value in that is we’re representing one voice taking this position, and it’s a large voice.”
However, Capitol Hill isn’t the only place pipeline advocacy is needed. Lobbying efforts are also important on the state and local level, Wyman says. Opposition forces are particularly strong in local forums. The pipeline industry needs to participate in these venues or risk allowing the opposition to dictate the narrative.
“If only one side shows up, then that’s the only story that will be told,” he says. “The industry has to be there to tell our side of the story. The whole industry, contractors, manufacturers and operators, needs to be there. Our opponents do show up, and in big numbers.”
Public information meetings represent an opportunity for the pipeline industry to meet directly with the people who will be impacted by a project. This is one of the primary ways the PLCA has shown its support for the industry.
“The PLCA and LiUNA staunchly support our customers and actively promote their projects,” Riess says. “In fact, whenever we are called upon to promote a project to ensure a permit is issued, we do everything in our power to support our customers, including attending public information meetings and letter-writing campaigns. The PLCA hasn’t always been a very active lobbying presence, however, we proactively support our industry and its projects.”
As stakeholders push back against misinformation and seek to improve advocacy efforts, Worrell says there has been “a commitment to increased collaboration across the pipeline industry.”
“We’ve had conversations with customers and end-users, who have said they would have never shared their playbook until now,” she adds. “Not that long ago, our member companies would have never been in the business of sharing how to go about fighting for a project, and now they are. There’s a growing sense that a win for anybody is win for everybody in our industry.”
Aydt agrees with that sentiment.
“We all need to work together,” he says. “It is not about keeping fossil fuels in the ground but exploring all options to responsibly meet the growing energy needs of the United States and the world. We must end energy poverty and help raise the standard of living for all.”