Energy Industry Touts Commitment To Emergency Preparedness, Energy Delivery During Coronavirus
From pipeline owners and operators to petrochemical manufacturers and gas companies, America’s energy industry is committed to supplying the energy needed during the Coronavirus epidemic as cities and states adopt social distancing measures. The companies stressed in a Wednesday briefing with reporters that while the situation is fluid, they have plans in place to ensure critical energy supplies remain available.
“This is an ongoing operational response for our members companies, who are responding in real time to changing circumstances to ensure we can continue to deliver critical energy supplies,” said Suzanne Lemieux, operations security and emergency response policy manager for the American Petroleum Institute (API), who added that member companies and the trades they work with are in regular contact with federal regulatory agencies as they enact their plans in the face of the pandemic.
Lemieux explained some API members had been through pandemic situations before overseas, including the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002, and outbreaks of the West Nile Virus. These experiences helped companies develop the sorts of policies they are implementing today.
Andrew Lu, managing director of operations and engineering services for the American Gas Association, agreed, saying that planning for epidemics was “part of the DNA of the gas industry.”
“Drills and simulations have been conducted for decades. They are part of code compliance for gas utilities, so they have put in place business practices and response practices in response to scenarios such as this,” he said. “This is something that they have practiced.”
Even with the benefit of prior planning and extensive practice, utilities are adapting to an evolving situation and learning best practices from each other. This can be as simple as ensuring that contractors have ample supplies of soap and water on their vehicles each day, but also extends to policies to limit close contact between employees or employees and customers, the speakers said.
In this regard, energy companies are turning to the same social distancing policies that have been enacted across the entire economy. Some companies are instituting work from home policies, while utilities and other consumer-facing companies are limiting how much time employees spend in customer homes.
To ensure these plans work smoothly, many operators are dividing their staff into different teams, some of whom may be isolated in control rooms to ensure that key pipeline and refinery systems continue to operate. Refineries in particular are limiting access to worksites.
“In order to supply American energy needs in response to this specific event, companies have set up their own emergency response centers, established communications across the sites and have been implementing their customized COVID-19 plans with considerations for staffing, regular disinfecting, remote working and implementing social distance,” said Lara Swett, vice president of technical and safety programs for the American Fuel & Petrochemicals Manufacturers.
These plans involve close cooperation with federal agencies including the Coast Guard, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Energy, to ensure that access to refineries is limited and visitors are appropriately screened.
These industry-federal partnerships will be increasingly critical in the days to come as both industry and government work to ensure safe operations during tense times, especially as the industry transitions to a situation where on-site inspections and site visits will become more rare.
“We have great partnerships at the federal level and those could be very helpful in resolving any kind of local issues to make sure our systems continue to run and our crews can access areas where they need to to continue delivering energy service,” said John Stoody, vice president of government and public relations for the Association of Oil Pipe Lines.
While planning for containment, the industry is also preparing contingencies in case of a widespread outbreak. Since modern pipelines are increasingly automated, the impacts of such an occurrence are less than they would have been in the past. Even so, companies are planning ways to potentially shift employees between job sites to cover for absences.
“Our companies are very large and they can move from one part of the state to another and even in some instances across state boundaries,” said Lu. “We are also looking at the possibility of using contractors to backfill positions and also the possibility of calling on mutual assistance from other utilities and so we have at AGA a mutual assistance program which allows utilities to draw and resources both person people as well as equipment resources from other gas utilities throughout the country.”
The details of how may be in flux, but the energy industry remains committed to ensuring a reliable supply of fuel. No matter what the days to come might bring, they said, they have a plan for it.