The damage prevention process is tried and true. Notifying a One-Call center through 811 has worked for over a decade, and for at least 30 years prior, other phone numbers and communication methods did the trick. With so firm a foundation and such an established system, how can innovation and reforms improve the process, and in 2022, what does damage prevention leadership look like?
The Common Ground Alliance (CGA) put forth a picture of leadership in its latest white paper: Natural Gas: Leading the Damage Prevention Industry. The short paper explores survey results, insights, and takeaways from dozens of interviews and hundreds of workers at various levels of the natural gas utility sector. Natural gas pipe is one of the most commonly struck facilities in the country. It is second only to telecommunications lines – although in some states, natural gas infrastructure is the most damaged facility. It is also one of the most highly regulated.
Being responsible for potentially hazardous gas and the facilities carrying it has led natural gas utilities and pipeline owner/operators to adopt many standard operating procedures and best practices. Many of these are in compliance with regulation, but many are voluntary internal practices. Whether it is out of obligation or initiative, natural gas stakeholders do hold a form of leadership in the damage prevention space. That is also partly due to their visibility.
Regardless of the effectiveness of their past leadership, it is clear that looking forward, natural gas is best positioned to lead, both from a natural responsibility and regulation-generated obligation. This is supported in the paper, when CGA articulates “opportunities for utility owners/operators to own their safety message and leverage their influence.” This influence is connected to natural gas being “one of the most publicly visible” stakeholders.
That influence and visibility even extends to other stakeholders. As CGA explains: “Because of their central role in the industry, natural gas distribution stakeholders have opportunities to influence excavator behavior — particularly that of their own contractors and subcontractors — as well as other facility owners/operators for the good of public safety and the entire damage prevention system.” Leadership within damage prevention, then, must include adhering to regulations, being diligent in internal practices, and using the natural pulpit of size and notability to sway others. But there is at least one more key tenet of leadership to explore.
The report focuses on four takeaways from interviews and surveys with natural gas stakeholders.
- Natural gas distribution stakeholders are deeply engaged in damage prevention and can expand what they perceive as their central role in the industry.
- Shifting the focus to internal processes and programs is more likely to drive immediate industry-wide improvements.
- Improving locating through greater emphasis on mapping and fair contracts could help improve U.S. damage prevention as a whole.
- Seizing opportunities to increase investments in technology will be critical to reducing damages to natural gas facilities.
These four can be simplified into two groupings: non-technological and innovative technology. Takeaways one and two focus on non-technological aspects of leadership already encapsulated in the three leadership points above. These are good and needed components of effective and initiative-led damage prevention that can improve individual outcomes and inspire other stakeholders. Yet they demonstrate individualized solutions, not systemic change.
Even if highly visible stakeholders adopt a practice or improve internal trainings, it is no guarantee that they influence anyone – in part because internal things are inherently less visible to other stakeholders and public observers.
Where other stakeholders are more naturally engaged is through innovative technology. That is because many technologies in the damage prevention process focus on communication. By design, they are intended to engage multiple stakeholders at once, relay information, and promote collaboration. It is discouraging then, that only 14 percent of survey respondents identified “greater investment in technology and innovation” as having the most potential to reduce damage to natural gas facilities.
Curiously, either CGA itself in designing surveys or the natural gas stakeholders in responding seem not to connect related topics. While 48 percent said that improved communication would reduce damage, less than 15 percent believe technology is of top importance. This is despite the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) in 2017 giving its number one recommendation for damage prevention to be a technology-based communication practice, enhanced positive response. CGA itself in its 2021 Technology Report even identified the ideal dig of the future as employing electronic white-lining and enhanced positive response as the first two steps. These are bonafide communications methods, but they are hosted on technological platforms and accessible through commonly owned and used mobile devices.
Relatedly, a disconnect appears as survey respondents desire improved facility maps by only a 16 percent consensus. Yet when asked about technology, mapping leads the results with 61 percent agreeing GIS applications are needed. Once more, certain innovative technologies can span some of these desires, including electronic white-lining, electronic and enhanced positive response, predictive analytics, potential drone applications, and even virtual reality displays. In the near future, locators can help improve facility maps with GIS data and artificial intelligence to reconcile real-world location data with facility maps to account for inaccuracies, facility movement, or other errors.
All in all, the white paper serves as a great status report on the way stakeholders are thinking. Without survey data and reports like this, we may not know stakeholder views on priorities, technology, or issues, and we can utilize that information to advocate reforms. Ideally, we will see more technology prioritized, both on its own, but also as a way to achieve some of the other desired goals and objectives like communication.
The report also makes a key point that deserves one last examination. The paper suggests that focusing internally (training, webinars, communication) rather than external (enforcement, awareness, regulatory) may have the greatest chance to systemically impact the damage prevention space. This may well be true, but without an external force (regulation) any internal change would have to be self-motivated. By definition, this will not be systemic, but rather ad hoc and sparse. Where leadership is not moving the needle, more is needed. Perhaps that is simply stronger leadership or other stakeholders rising to the occasion, but it may also take rising standards imposed through law, regulation, and company policy.
To answer the original question what does leadership look like within damage prevention, there are at least three ways put forth by CGA. First is an obligation due to regulatory compliance, second is initiative to go above and beyond what the law requires internally for safety, and third is exercising influence by nature of being notable and visible. Natural gas stakeholders fulfill these, but there is still room for less visible, less notable, and less regulated stakeholders to demonstrate leadership, and that is through adoption of technology and implementation of best practices.
Whether leadership is a burden placed on one stakeholder group or something the stakeholders step into on their own, we hope to see it ripple across the damage prevention industry. Strong adherence to best practices and implementation of innovative technology will always help lead the way.
Written by Benjamin Dierker, Director of Public Policy
The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.