May 2021, Vol. 248, No. 5


New SGA Chair Focuses on Evolving Role of Natural Gas

Jimmy Staton, president and CEO of Southern Star Central Gas Pipeline, brings a wealth of experience – almost 37 years of it – to his term as Southern Gas Association (SGA) Board Chair.

After graduating with a petroleum engineering degree from Louisiana State University (LSU), he had the opportunity to work in a variety of businesses, from interstate pipeline companies to gas distribution to the electric utility and electric transmission business. 


Staton readily admits his real passion is the natural gas industry, though, and has headed Southern Star for four-and-a-half years. He is grateful for the opportunity to head up the SGA Board this year.

Southern Star is an interstate pipeline company that serves customers, distribution customers, electric utilities and industrials throughout the Midwest. 

“We’ve invested greatly in our pipelines, modernizing our pipeline infrastructure, modernizing our technology and developing our team,” Staton told P&GJ recently. “And this is probably the best time in my career with just a fantastic team and a great set of assets to operate.” 

In this interview, Staton discusses the concerns of the SGA membership, adapting to a new president’s agenda, improving the public’s perception of the natural gas industry and other topics.

P&GJ: Can you tell us a little about your experience with the Southern Gas Association? 

Staton: I have been involved in some form or fashion with SGA for the lion’s share of my 37-year career. It really started for me at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission [FERC], where I spent two years. 

After I left FERC, I had the opportunity to attend the main management conference when I was new to the pipeline industry. What I found was incredibly friendly people; they were welcoming. I was almost taken aback by how forthcoming everyone was – manufacturers of equipment sitting down with executives of pipelines and distribution companies and marketing companies.

They were talking about the best ways to do things, and how we could share best practices. For somebody new to the industry, I was wowed. I was being exposed to so much at that time. So, I kind of fell in love, if you will, and decided I wanted to become a bit more of an active member and take advantage of some of the leadership opportunities, such as leading a committee. What I wanted to do for sure was to continue networking.

P&GJ: What do you feel members gain most from their participation in the association? You just mentioned networking, which is a good example. 

Staton: That’s a great example, but I think the motto for SGA is linking people, ideas and information. 

I think that’s what folks primarily get – the opportunity to sit down and spend time with peers in this industry and with folks that you serve. We talk about a common focus, a common focus on safety and best practices for how we operate our pipelines. 

How do we balance the natural gas industry? What do we need to do collectively, not just individually as companies, to advance our industry? What can we do, collectively, from a training perspective, so that we don’t all have to reinvent the training program for certain parts of our business? 

I talked before about that collaboration, but it’s also collaboration on emerging technologies – not just what do we need to do today and how do we do that better, but discussing what’s next? 

P&GJ: How have the needs and concerns of SGA member companies changed in recent years, if you noticed any sort of shift? 

Staton: Absolutely. I have seen the dialogue around fossil fuels and natural gas lumped together with oil and coal, even though we are a different type of fuel source, which is much cleaner. Unfortunately, the energy conversation has shifted and narrowed. It’s a big concern in our industry.

We want to ensure that there is a broader understanding of what the energy portfolio in the world and in the United States should look like. And it needs to be based on facts. 

I am by no means a climate change denier; I’m an “all of the above” kind of person. I think we need renewable energy, and we need for it to be effective. We need nuclear energy because it is a renewable, wonderful source of electricity. But I also think natural gas needs to continue to be the cornerstone of our energy portfolio going forward. 

P&GJ: Are there any new or pending regulatory requirements that are of particular interest to you and the members, and how it is helping members to prepare for anything along those lines? 

Staton: Obviously with a new administration under President Biden, we expect there will be a renewed emphasis on renewable energy and likely additional new regulations on pipelines and on emissions, for instance. 

I expect that the process of permitting natural gas pipelines, for instance, will slow down, but we do not expect it to go away. 

We think there will be more environmental information requests and mitigation measures, and the industry is ready for that. We also expect that there will be increased focus on emissions, and, again, we are ready for that. 

So how does SGA affect that? It enables us to bring greater innovation to the way we address these types of issues. For instance, how do we comply and reduce emissions across the entirety of the energy spectrum? 

We have different member companies coming up with some very creative and innovative ways to eliminate emissions. Things like simply modernizing their infrastructure and changing the way they repair and replace pipelines, so it does not release methane into the air. By bringing all of those best practices together, we enable everyone to take advantage of those innovations.

P&GJ: How should the industry go about improving the public’s perception of it, particularly in the face of the growing opposition you alluded to earlier? 

Staton: We have tried to start this process over the last couple of years and are increasing our emphasis on it this year. We need to acknowledge, as an industry, and embrace a green energy future. We are not negative in any way about other energy sources. We want to compete. 

We’re also highlighting the fact that this has been one of the most innovative industries of all time, in my view. Since the 1970s, we have consistently been more efficient as an industry. In fact, we’ve been delivering for the growing needs of our customers in more efficient ways. For instance, we have been bringing more efficient appliances and better equipment so we use less fuel to make deliveries. We’ve been doing that now for almost 40 years, while bringing down the average use per customer in this industry. 

The natural gas industry innovated with one-directional drilling and using water to frack shale and bring that low-cost natural gas to the table. That was incredible innovation.

What we want is to ensure that our policymakers understand that if we are told what is needed, we can innovate to meet that need. Let us demonstrate to you that we can do that. We can bring renewables, or we can bring innovative new products to the table. We can determine how to introduce hydrogen into our gas streams to reduce the amount of carbon that gets released into the air. We can bring things like carbon capture to the table. 

P&GJ: Considering the current limitations of less than full-time availability and storage from solar and wind sources, do you believe they are an important part of the energy mix? 

Staton: Absolutely, I do. I think the storm experienced down in Texas and the Midwest exposed some flaws in our energy delivery system, and we need to learn from that. There is a need for a broad portfolio of energy sources to ensure that we always can provide for the needs of our customers. 

Wind and solar power sources had some issues during that time, but to be perfectly frank, so did natural gas. There were some freeze-offs of natural gas coming out of wells during the storm, so there was no perfect answer. That’s why, in my view, we need a broad portfolio offering a lot of options. 

We think natural gas, quite honestly, is the perfect complement to wind and solar, because if in those instances when the wind may not be generating electricity or the sun may not be able to generate electricity, natural gas can be fed into a generating station and that generating station can come up very, very quickly. 

P&GJ: In talking with members and others in the industry, what is the consensus for going forward as COVID restrictions lessen? 

Staton: We had an SGA virtual roundtable of the human resource leaders for many of the SGA member companies just this week [March 28]. I would say that, first and foremost, we had front-line team members go to work every day to serve our customers, and they never skipped a beat during the COVID pandemic. They are our heroes.

Now, for the rest of the folks in our organization, what we are starting to see is a light at the end of the tunnel, and for that we are grateful. We are seeing restrictions begin to be lifted in the states where we operate, and we are looking forward to reopening our spaces. But we are doing so with caution. 

Throughout the pandemic, we have been very focused on protecting our people, praying that they stay safe, and that we don’t contribute to the spread of COVID. I think as an industry, we’ve done a really good job with that, and I think you will start to see our offices open back up as we approach the summer.

We’re all looking to get back to collaborating a bit more directly and not having to do everything over the phone or on video. We want to build back, if you will, or regain that culture of collaboration. We’re excited about it and cautiously optimistic. 

P&GJ: What would you most like the organization to accomplish during your time in office? 

Staton: One of the first things we have already done is restructure the committees at SGA to retain the sharing of information about safety and technical expertise, and how we share best practices and the way we operate our businesses. 

We’ve also added some committees on things like environmental, social and governance [ESG] issues so that we are expanding our appreciation and our best practices from an ESG perspective. We started an Emerging Issues Committee so we have a more consistent dialog about what those new opportunities are and how we are going to embrace them.

Secondly, I hope through the advertising campaign that we will continue to use through the remainder of this year, SGA will be able to continue to shift the narrative about natural gas and its proper place in our energy portfolio. 

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