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United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Remarks of Howard "Skip" Elliott Before the Greater Houston Partnership

Washington, DC
February , 26, 2020


Good afternoon.  Welcome to Washington and thank you for this opportunity to be with you all today.

It’s a special privilege to follow my boss, Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao. It was her profound commitment to safety that brought me out of retirement and into my current role working with the dedicated professionals at the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, otherwise known as PHMSA.

As you all hail from Houston, the mecca of the American energy industry, I doubt that I’ll hear any new and creative attempts to pronounce “PHMSA” here.  But not everyone in the country, and you could also argue most, know very much about PHMSA or the important work we do.

We at PHMSA are well-aware that relatively few people know much about our activities, or even of our existence.   We don’t dwell on those things, mostly because we simply don’t have time for it.   PHMSA only has about 580 employees. But, this little Agency of ours oversees enough miles of pipelines to encircle the globe more than 10 times, and it regulates the safety of hazardous materials shipments by all other modes of transportation, which occurs at a rate of one shipment every 14 seconds.  

In broader terms, that’s 2.8 million miles of pipeline in the U.S. and 1.2 million shipments of hazardous materials each-and-every day.

When I do consider our anonymity, I’m oddly thankful for it.  We’re all familiar with the journalistic rule of thumb that “If it bleeds, it leads.”   And if headlines happen when things go wrong, then from the perspective of a safety agency that translates almost literally to, “No news is indeed good news.”

PHMSA's mission is to protect people and the environment by advancing the safe transportation of energy products and other hazardous materials that are essential to our daily lives.  

I like to point out that this means everything we regulate is important, at least as judged by the market.   That’s illustrated by the very risk that the things we regulate pose, because if those things weren’t important enough to offset the risk that moving them entails, then no one would be transporting them.  

Before coming to PHMSA about two-and-a-half years ago I had a 40-year career focused on safety in the freight rail industry.  

I came out of retirement and moved here to DC because of the Secretary’s commitment to safety and because I believe that when you are asked to do something good for your country, and if you can say “Yes,” then you should. 

During my railroad career I saw tremendous advancements in safety often driven by better technology.   And I know that advances in pipeline inspection tools, materials science, and computerized integrity management systems, have set the stage for great strides in the activities that PHMSA regulates on this front.

Safety is always of course an end in itself.  One doesn’t have to view the sites of major train derailments or other disasters very many times before that truth becomes brutally obvious.  In the energy industry of America today it becomes even more critically important.  As energy production continues to increase, the need for transporting oil and natural gas to its markets grows along with it. 

But, with you all I feel a bit like I’m preaching to the choir.  

As your 2020 Partnership Chair, Mr. Bobby Tudor said during his comments at your recent annual meeting, “Maintaining Houston’s place as the Energy Capital of the World requires that the region’s business and civic leaders address the dual challenge of meeting expanding global energy demands while lowering the world’s carbon footprint.”   

The American energy business is booming and that delivers a host of ancillary benefits. For the first time in over 70 years, our country is again a net energy exporter. World leadership in production of both oil and natural gas is part of what is powering a vibrant economy, resulting in long-term low unemployment, a favorable business environment, and solid, sustained, economic growth.

It also provides relief from pressures that have, for decades, distorted our foreign policy by causing dependence on foreign energy sources.

The pursuit of safety in the transportation systems that underpin all those benefits is something that I witness every day in my colleagues at PHMSA, and that makes me proud to work among them.  

You heard Secretary Chao talk about the Department’s top three priorities:  Safety, Infrastructure, and Innovation. Those three words, in that order, serve as PHMSA’s motto.

Serving PHMSA’s mission requires the simultaneous application of two distinct, almost opposite approaches. Some of what we do can only be done well with a sweat-the-details approach, while other aspects of our strategy require thinking big enough to see paradigm shifts coming.  

Our day-to-day operations require a meticulous examination of the proverbial trees, but allocating our modest research and development budget to encourage innovation depends on keen awareness of the forest. 

Let me give you some examples. When we perform inspections, or train those who will perform them in our state-level partners, the emphasis is on the meticulous. More than half of the 2.8 million miles of transmission, gathering, and distribution pipelines I mentioned are more than 50 years old.  

While age alone is not a foolproof indicator of pipeline safety, nothing lasts forever. The difference between disaster averted or realized can lie in just how much detail the inspection is conducted with.  Likewise, our rulemakings are a place where detail matters a great deal.  

To provide industry with regulatory certainty we must ensure that the language is precise in our rulemakings and special permits, and that it allows for consistent enforcement. We have also launched a series of internal Process Improvement Initiatives led by experienced PHMSA employees because we believe in holding ourselves to the same high standards that we expect of the operators that we regulate.   
But the face of transportation, and the technology that drives it, are changing far too rapidly for the best safety outcomes to be found in mere attention to detail.  New and better in-line inspection tools are being developed at a rapid pace.  The last thing a safety agency wants to do is to get in the way of such devices which can deliver the tangible safety improvements that he public and the environment are entitled to.  

Safety Management and Integrity Management Systems are other important safety enhancement areas where PHMSA engineers must see the whole picture in order to bolster, not impede, the implementation of safety-enhancing technology.  

PHMSA has a modest Research and Development budget and keeping it properly focused is another area where it’s vital to see the big picture, to identify discrete, solvable problems resulting in immediate and tangible safety improvement.

One thing that big-picture awareness shows us is that the day is coming when autonomous vehicles and other similar technologies might deliver greater safety than we see today.  PHMSA’s determined not to be an obstacle to that process, which means evaluating the incremental advances in the field so that we can respond with proper regulations when new technology is ready to be implemented.  

In that case, this process is not even purely about technology.  The question of how people might come to trust the new technology is still open and could affect the pace at which it becomes more commonplace.

In the pipeline business, one of the big-picture pieces of the puzzle that PHMSA recently launched is the expansion of the DOT’s Transportation Technology Center in Pueblo, Colorado. This facility has been owned and operated by the Federal Railroad Administration since its construction in 1970, even before I was in the railroad business.  

I watched it for years’ function as a catalyst for innovation and modernization in the rail industry. The Transportation Technology Center site and its proven business model offers the real potential to improve the safety of the nation’s gas and liquid pipelines by rapidly expanding the research and innovation capacity of the pipeline industry to a level, and at a scale currently unavailable today.

The site encompasses 52 square miles of property, some of which will hold a new National Pipeline Research and Innovation Test Site.  Its purpose is to create a way to allow pipeline safety innovation to move more quickly from concept, through testing, to application.

I’ve heard the complaint many times from industry that PHMSA’s not moving fast enough to get safety-enhancing innovation into the field where it can help to prevent safety incidents.  I’ve watched the Transportation Technology Center perform that function for railroads, an industry that achieved dramatic improvements in safety during my tenure.  

I’m confident that it will deliver substantial safety improvements in pipeline operations as well, far faster than they could happen without it. The entire pipeline industry is, I think, poised to experience a safety renaissance.  

We at PHMSA have a goal of getting to zero safety incidents, and I don’t just mean that rhetorically.  Until we get there, the job of safety is never quite finished.

A safety record that delivers energy products by pipeline without incident more than 99.997 percent of the time, which is what we have, is very-very good.  But when any incident can become an ultimate tragedy, “Very-very good” is just a gentle way of saying “NOT good enough.”  

I’ve been called because of that belief, a “safety zealot.”  I’ll wear that label with pride any day.  And, I’ll close by telling you why.

The fact that pipeline and hazardous materials transportation failures are statistically rare, is offset by something no less true. That each-and-every one that does occur can be a tragedy.  

For example, in the last five years, pipeline incidents have resulted in 52 fatalities and 290 injuries that required hospitalization. To the families of the victims in those tragic occurrences, very-very good was not good enough, because the only incident they care about was devastating to them.

And that’s why just one accident is one too many. So long as the industries we regulate hold the potential for such preventable consequences, we at PHMSA will strive to eliminate it.  That’s what the pursuit of zero safety incidents means, and it’s why I stubbornly insist upon it.

Folks, thanks again for allowing me to join you today.  It’s been a great honor and a real pleasure for me.  Enjoy your time in our Nation’s capital, and please remember that safety is everyone’s business.

Last updated: Wednesday, February 26, 2020