March 2023, Vol. 250, No. 3


SGA’s New Chair Stresses Operational Excellence

Special to Pipeline & Gas Journal 

(P&GJ) — The new chair of the Southern Gas Association (SGA), Luke Litteken, started his career in natural gas right out of technical college taking a job with Minnegasco (now CenterPoint Energy) in Minnesota as a technician, partly because he enjoys the outdoors. Twenty-five years later, he had the opportunity to move over to Xcel Energy, where he is now the senior vice president of the gas business.


Recently, Litteken took time out to answer a few questions from P&GJ on his role with SGA, and what the organization hopes to accomplish for the industry in terms of improved safety, the public’s perception of the industry, regulatory challenges and other topics.  

How did you get into the business, and what made you want to make natural gas your career? 

I grew up working with my hands around appliances and industrial systems. My Dad was an HVAC and refrigeration mechanic for the hospital at Scott Airforce Base in Illinois, and he had a side business in this trade, as well. So, in addition to working on a dairy farm as a kid, I spent a lot of time helping my dad in his side business.

Leading up to my high school graduation, I wanted to learn the same trade for my career and went to Ranken Technical College in St. Louis, Missouri. As I was getting ready to graduate, my interest in hunting and fishing led me to look for careers in Minnesota. Minnegasco (now CenterPoint Energy) was hiring technicians with my skill set, so I joined them as an entry level, IBEW gasfitter. I was able to use my skills not only on the appliance repair side of Minnegasco’s Home Service Plus business, but they also trained me on the gas utility.  

After six cold Minnesota winters, I took a job in management, went back to school and had the opportunity to learn and grow in the gas utility. After 25 years with CenterPoint Energy, I was given a great opportunity to join Xcel Energy. 

The reasons that I have enjoyed my career in the natural gas industry are many, but include:   

  • The industry we serve is extremely innovative, resilient, reliable and benefits nearly every American’s daily life. The American natural gas industry is not only a driving force in the economic prosperity of the United States, but also has an increasingly global impact. 
  • It’s a big industry, but a tightknit community. I have made terrific friendships in other utilities across the country through industry associations. 
  • Despite the current challenges on the industry, our industry’s workforce and assets, will serve our customers for generations to come. 

How did you get involved with SGA, and what did you gain most as an association member? 

SGA has always had a strong member base representing the entire value chain, from the well head to the burner tip. This is a distinct advantage because the energy system doesn’t work in a silo, its parts are intertwined.  

To run an effective natural gas system all parts of the value chain from production to distribution must be in sync. I have personally benefitted from SGA’s classroom training, networking opportunities and overall experience. I have enjoyed building deep relationships with other leaders from peer utilities and other companies in the gas value chain.

Southern Star committee members with 2022 SGA chair, Steve Lindsey, COO Spire.

I would also say my team of co-workers has received similar benefits, and that SGA has played an important role in our success as a gas utility. 

What are the top priorities for SGA this year, and how have these changed in the past few years? 

The themes or pillars I have brought forward as chairman are in a lot of ways a continuation and further development of things the association has been working on over the years – just evolving more with the environment which we operate. I am asking for everyone’s support in further building out the following three areas:  

  • Providing leadership on clean energy technology – from the well head through combustion – which positions SGA members and the broader gas industry to not just keep up with the demands of customers and policymakers but take a larger role in driving the conversation. 
  • Ensuring a robust and empowered workforce is ready to make this industry thrive for generations, starting with creating greater awareness of careers in the energy industry, especially in populations who aren’t always well represented in our field. A workforce that reflects all the customers we serve strengthens the industry and our communities. 
  • Protecting the reputation of gas as one of the most accessible and consumer friendly energy’s available to consumers, with a focus on fuel flexibility and affordability. 

What do you feel members gain most for their participation? 

From day one, members benefit from the content available to their company, including core classes that accelerate the onboarding of new employees, leadership development via the committee structure, and soft-skill training and SGA’s Accredited Energy Executive program (ANGE). 

The more one participates, the more value they will glean through shared knowledge and solutions, as well as deeper relationships and lifelong friendships with other experts in our industry. You will develop a lot of “phone-a-friend” opportunities that become a professional advantage. 

As the industry has changed in recent years, how has SGA changed in terms of the types of companies that are now members? 

The membership base hasn’t changed in the type of companies represented but is expanding in number and geography. SGA’s core operating area is the 24 states in the south, central and southeast United States.  

However, the membership base and their assets are located throughout North America. This is a distinct advantage because it provides perspective. Another unique advantage to SGA’s membership base is that it represents organizations throughout the entire gas value chain: producers, gas marketing, municipals, transmission, and distribution operators as well as the industry partners. 

On the topic of safety, how are SGA and its members working to improve pipeline and job safety?  

Safety is more than a topic for Southern Gas Association, it is a core value. Topics can change, values generally do not. 

Operationally, safety for workers and the systems we operate must be a constant  journey of continuous improvement: there is always something that can be enhanced, expanded, or changed to make sure everyone goes home safely at the end of the day. One way in which this has shown up at Xcel Energy is through our Safety Always initiative, using a learning mindset versus a secrecy mindset, to get ahead of safety risks before they happen, and if an event occurs, ensure it only occurs once.  

SGA uses collective experience to enhance safety and offers several safety programs that meet each operator where they are. In 2021 SGA, NGA and Blacksmith collaborated to launch 11 PSMS Tactical Guides that help operationalize PSMS to the field.  

Additionally, SGA’s Pipeline Safety Council and Safety section and committee share lessons learned and bring forward those learnings as roundtables and presentations delivered at SGA’s conferences.  

Roundtables allow operators to learn from each other. Additionally, the association brings internal and external experts to help challenge status quo and improve all aspects of industry safety. Safety is embedded in what we do, how we talk, and what we think about. 

What research activities is SGA coordinating on with other associations? 

Southern Gas Association collaborates to share research from the Gas Machinery Research Council (GMRC) and PRCI. 

How should the industry go about strengthening its perception by the public, particularly in the face of growing opposition? 

There’s a saying I like, which originally came from the philosopher Georg Hegel: “History shows us that we don’t learn from history.” I think there’s a lot of that happening right now. There’s a  vocal body of advocates pushing an anti-natural gas agenda despite several major energy events that brought the criticality of natural gas to both a national (Winter Storm Uri) and global stage (Ukraine War). But we also can’t ignore the underlying shifting tides and the risk of debating short-term pressures at the expense of capturing significant long-term opportunities. 

At the end of the day, our customers need to help industry drive this conversation forward, and those customers are demanding two primary things: safe, affordable, reliable energy; and an energy economy that’s sustainable for the world. 

Strengthening our industry perception starts with demonstrating our commitment to the needs of the customer and opening the doors to new sources of energy and economic opportunity in a changing energy landscape. This is one of the things that’s made Xcel Energy so successful in the electric Net Zero space. 

We were the first large industry player to step out and say, “Yes, we will lead the way to a new energy economy, but we will chart a course that always puts the core needs of our customer first: reliability and affordability.” That stance has allowed Xcel Energy to have a voice in many of the policies now being passed around clean energy standards. 

There are two key areas in which we can demonstrate leadership and play to the strengths of the industry: 

Number one, deliver operational excellence above all else: no one knows how to deliver on-demand, safe and affordable energy better than our industry, but we have to continuously earn that credibility. Raising our standards across the board, promoting how we’re doing it and asking the public to hold us accountable generates the trust we need to be a leading voice.  

There’s precedent here from organizations like API and INPO, industry groups which took responsibility for raising the performance standards of their operations and now write many of the policies and procedures regulatory agencies institute. Personally, I believe this starts with safety and demonstrating there’s no one more committed or more effective at serving its customers and keeping its employees and communities safe than the gas industry itself.  To quote one of my mentors:  

Operationally focused leaders strive to prevent events and clearly dread them; however, when they occur, we commit to extracting every ounce of learning from them to not only prevent that same thing from happening but other similar events. 

Number two, be a leader in defining the gas industry in a shifting energy economy: We will be better positioned to advocate for all our current priorities – workforce recruitment, regulatory and policy management, attracting investment – if the industry pushes to the forefront of pragmatic transformation that can deliver what customers demand while capturing the benefits of emerging energy sources. 

What would you most like to see accomplished during your time as the organization’s head? 

There are three priorities which line up opportunities to strengthen the industry perception and are also immediate business challenges we face:  

  1. To work together as an entire value chain, align on what great looks like regarding lower methane emissions and promote it as an industry. For example, why don’t we define what Certified Natural Gas is, rather than relying on a third party to do it for us. 
  1. Work together to support a national campaign to create awareness on the great jobs we have in our industry, especially in areas of the country where we don’t typically draw people from. We all need more talent to help us create the energy future and this competition will continue to be fierce. 
  1. Resiliency is an increasing concern across the nation. Let’s define what resiliency means and identify those best practices that enable resiliency. And how do we do all this to keep energy bills low for all our customers. 

You spent a fair amount of time talking to people in the natural gas industry. Is there a consensus outlook for 2023? 

These are the themes I am hearing and sharing with my peers regarding 2023: 

  1. The regulatory environment for most of us will continue to be more challenging, requiring us to innovate. How do we solve customer needs and ensure resiliency through perhaps non-traditional means (i.e., not just spending more capital and O&M) so we can continue to keep customer bills low. 
  1. The economic conditions in the United States create headwinds for our industry, so I think we will see unprecedented efforts to reduce O&M. 
  1. The global market for natural gas is uncertain: 
  1. Shifting geopolitical situation making global supply and demand more volatile (Ukraine). 
  1. Local demand and growth on the system. 
  1. Volatility due to weather events. 

The industry will need to manage through this and maintain a safe, reliable, and resilient fuel source all while keeping customer bills low.

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