Washington — The outgoing leader of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America had one piece of advice for the natural gas pipeline sector as his 17-year tenure with the group drew to a close: the industry needs to focus more on the role it can play as part of an orderly transition to a clean energy economy.
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"We've got to be talking about more than just what we've already done," Don Santa, INGAA CEO, said in an interview with S&P Global Platts, even as he noted that gas, as an energy source, and pipeline infrastructure have provided multiple economic benefits, including abundance, affordability and competition. The trade group in January announced Santa would be stepping down Saturday.
Santa exits his post at a time when the gas sector, including the pipeline industry, faces pressure from state, local and international climate policies pushing for increased use of renewables and lower greenhouse gas emissions. Talk of limiting gas production has entered into Democratic presidential debates. And domestic gas pipeline projects are often confronted by opposition and litigation.
Within the larger societal debate, Santa said the gas industry should highlight what can be done to make gas a sustainable part of the future energy mix, whether it is carbon capture, utilization and sequestration, or technologies to lower methane emissions.
"I think we have to say here's the role we can play in the future and here are the things we need to get there," he said.
Compared with prior periods in his more than two decades involved with the gas sector, Santa said debate over gas policies has moved "above the fold," entering the mainstream, and policy clashes are more polarized even as Congress has been unable to provide high-level guidance.
"The fact that there has been a void when it comes to overall direction on energy and climate has led to situations where you have individual states choosing to do their own program, individual localities choosing to do their own thing, or interest groups choosing to use litigation and going after particular projects to make their points," he said.
A key challenge for INGAA and the industry is how to participate effectively in a policy discussion that "now goes far beyond Washington," reaching to states and litigation, Santa said. INGAA and other trade groups were structured to interact with forums in Washington such as federal agencies and Congress, he noted.
"The need for not only the industry, but really the leading companies in the industry, to think about how we can effectively meet this challenge is really the question of the day," he said.
"There clearly are some threats if we don't end up with a rational set of policies that promote the most efficient solutions," he said.
One emerging policy challenge for the gas sector is the movement backing city ordinances to ban new gas hookups in buildings.
Bans on hydraulic fracturing have also emerged as points of debate in the Democratic presidential primary, though Santa, like others in the industry suggested calls for such policy ideas likely would be tempered by the realities of governing.
Santa suggested the industry would benefit from an entity serving the role once filled by America's Natural Gas Alliance, which was "a state gas voice and was focused on being part of the larger discussion about the role of gas."
He also made a pitch for the industry to identify areas where it can take the initiative to answer a question – as he said it did with integrity management in the realm of pipeline safety after the San Bruno explosion of 2010. That model could be applied to other topics such as methane emissions, he suggested, to get ahead on the topic, rather than waiting for laws or regulation, he said.
"I think it's a matter of recognizing where things are going in the public discussion, recognizing we're moving to a cleaner energy system, and then saying how can we best position natural gas and pipelines to be part of that," he said.
"I think if we emphasize what it is that we can do in the future to achieve the overall goals that society has, then we're probably setting the stage to get the kinds of policies that will let us do that," he added.
Santa did not yet know what this next position would be, but said after taking some time off, he "wouldn't be surprised if "I'm still more active in the energy space in the future."