March 2024, Vol. 251, No. 3


New Foundation Chair Focusing on Boosting Strategic Plan

By Michael Reed, Editor-in-Chief 

(P&GJ) – With safety being at the forefront of all things concerning pipeline projects, new INGAA Chair Sean Nicholson certainly comes well-equipped for his new role.

INGAA Chair Sean Nicholson

As vice president of Health, Safety, Environment and Quality (HSEQ) of Michels Corporation, he brings a more than 25 years of experience in his role at the multi-faceted construction company, headquartered in Brownsville, Wisconsin. 

Nicholson, after all, has made a career of improving safety, sustainability, quality, and environmental stewardship of operations in the infrastructure construction industry.

“With continued emphasis on safety, environmental stewardship, quality and collaboration, we are committed to reaching our industry’s goal of building, maintaining and delivering clean energy,” Nicholson said, upon being chosen as INGAA chairman. 

In this interview with Pipeline & Gas Journal, Nicholson discusses his career, his introduction to INGAA and the job of implementing the association’s strategic plan, among other topics. 

P&GJ: Where are you from originally, and how did you decide on a career in the oil and gas industry? 

Sean Nicholson: I was raised in Rainy River, Ontario, Canada and put myself through school while working in the construction industry (telecom/fiber and oil & gas). I transferred to the U.S. in 1998 with a Canadian-based company, joined the Michels team in 2007 and have worked here since.

My career path in infrastructure construction eventually led me to the oil and gas industry, and I couldn’t be happier about it! It truly is one of the most responsible and forward-thinking industries there is when it comes to the safety of people (employees and the public), the quality of the product/project that is being built or maintained, and the preservation of the environment. 

I’m very fortunate and proud of the women and men involved in this critical industry, and the companies they represent! 

P&GJ: What led to your involvement in the INGAA Foundation? 

Nicholson: I was beginning my second year at Michels [2008] when Bob Osborn [now president of Michels Energy Holdings, Inc.] tapped me to represent him and Michels at an INGAA Foundation event from a health and safety perspective. I was immediately enthralled by the passion and comradery within the INGAA Foundation and have been a willing participant and champion of the Foundation since.

One really cannot do the membership’s commitment, focus and collaboration any justice through words…you really do have to attend and get involved to experience it and truly understand the benefits from a holistic industry point of view. Michels owners and senior leadership team understand the value and importance of our active participation, and they are great supporters of same. 

P&GJ: What are your top priorities as Foundation chairman? 

Nicholson: A lot has changed within our industry over the past five to seven years, and one of my primary goals is to ensure we implement the strategic plan we developed in 2023 and focus on further alignment with INGAA. I’m really looking forward to working with Paul Ruppert [BHE GT&S, a Berkshire Hathaway Energy Company], the 2024 chair of INGAA, to ensure we continue those efforts.

The INGAA Foundation’s commitment to responsibly supporting the gas industry and complimentary clean energy solutions is resolute, and I want to do everything I can to help us further our commitment and performance – not only for our members and partners but, for all stakeholders.  

We have an incredible story to tell about the importance of our industry when it comes to the safety and reliability of our resources and infrastructure, along with how vital of a role we play in ensuring safe and affordable energy security to the people of North America and the rest of the world!  

It is up to all of us to ensure we are able to articulate that story and continually focus on maintaining our ability to provide this critical resource in a responsible manner.

P&GJ: When you talk to members, what do they express as their greatest concerns? 

Nicholson: Natural gas is domestically produced, and readily available, and fuel switching to natural gas for power generation is directly responsible for a 32% reduction in carbon emissions from 2005-2009.

Our abundant, reliable domestic natural gas resources and pipelines help local economies remain competitive and secure by providing low-cost fuel, paying land-use taxes, creating sustainable jobs, and supporting local businesses. 

Many of our members are concerned about the direction we’re headed in North America with respect to our safe, affordable and reliable energy independence. We are all committed to lower emissions through clean energy solutions, but we also know we have to be very measured and pragmatic as we consider moving away from certain sources.

We are all asking ourselves, “what’s next for us with respect to furthering our goal of energy independence and how do we responsibly ensure the future of this critical industry?” Additionally, we are continually assessing what we can do to improve not only safety, quality and reliability, but also help further instill public confidence in our industry and the natural gas transmission system.

Another area of great concern is the issue of regulatory reliability and permitting reform. A great deal of time and money is put into feasibility studies, environmental impact assessments, project engineering and designs, and planning for construction by the owner operators and contracting community. 

The current permitting process is ever-changing and unreliable and this uncertainty results in significant financial impacts across the value chain of the entire industry.

P&GJ: How does the Foundation identify and deliver its annual slate of programs?  

Nicholson: The membership puts forth pertinent study and project proposals that are relevant and mission-critical to our industry and stakeholders throughout the entire value chain.

These proposals/study ideas are then presented to the membership for consideration and then a forced ranking process to help us hone-in on the studies we collectively determine to be “mission critical.” The primary goal of this process is to ensure we’re focused on addressing challenges facing our industry and developing solutions that affect change. 

P&GJ: How have you seen the relationship between service companies and operators change in recent years? 

Nicholson: I’ve been very fortunate and pleased to witness further alignment and collaboration between the operators and service providers across the board. Especially when it comes to our collective focus on cleaner, safer and reliable pipelines and infrastructure.

The members of the INGAA Foundation truly come to the table with a “guards down, ego-free” approach – knowing that we’re all here for the greater good of the industry and the people in the communities we serve.

In fact, in September of last year, INGAA and the INGAA Foundation co-hosted the Natural Gas Pipeline Infrastructure Showcase on Capitol Hill for the second time. The Showcase served as an outstanding opportunity for alignment between the two organizations by utilizing members from both associations to educate on the lifecycle of natural gas pipeline infrastructure.

The event guided participants through the pipeline lifecycle from the FERC certificate process through physical design, routing, clearing, grading, welding, lowering-in, backfilling, specialized installation techniques (i.e., horizontal directional drilling/direct pipe), testing and QA/QC inspections, restoration, integrity management, emissions monitoring and mitigation, and stakeholder engagement.  

The Showcase connected different facets of both pipeline operators’ and service providers’ work to foster a comprehensive understanding of our collective efforts in support of the industry in a laid-back, yet interactive setting for policymakers. One of the speakers at the event was Congressman Troy Nehls (R-TX), chairman of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure – and coincidentally a former Michels employee!

P&GJ: What INGAA Foundation studies can we look forward to seeing this year?

Nicholson: This year will again produce a diverse set of studies in our four primary subject areas of occupational safety, asset quality and integrity management, environment, and workforce development.

We will be completing multi-year efforts in high energy tasks and direct controls to protect workers, our third and final planned inspector practical guide this time focused on environmental inspectors, and an engagement toolkit this year focused on middle and high school students. 

In an effort to provide both industry and our regulators with the best information, we will be updating our 2005 report on vintage pipe to address selective seam corrosion in ERW pipe, as that is an issue identified in the recent 49 CFR, Part 192, RIN 2 release. 

We will also produce a best practices document to address environmental justice concerns when planning, constructing, and operating a pipeline or facility. 

P&GJ: Can you pick one thing you would most like to see accomplished during your time as chairman? 

Nicholson: Wow… There are so many great things going on within the INGAA Foundation and its membership that it’s hard to choose just one! However, in addition to what I’ve previously mentioned, we are extremely excited about the potential for a second iteration of our Safety Culture Survey for service providers and our forthcoming workforce engagement and communication initiatives.

First and foremost, we are laser focused on providing high value to our members, continuing our efforts of transparency and collaboration with federal agencies (FERC, PHMSA, EPA, etc.), growth in our membership and measurable progress towards achieving our four strategic goals of:

  • Convening members and industry partners 
  • Innovate solutions 
  • Engage with stakeholders, policy makers and communities 
  • Leadership and workforce development. 

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