Avangrid Inc. CEO Jim Torgerson wants the American Gas Association (AGA) to continue its historical focus on safety and resilience, but to also delve into innovation, as the trade group navigates the ever-changing landscape of cybersecurity, infrastructure upgrades and an aging workforce.

Torgerson, who became CEO of Orange, CT-based Avangrid in 2015, was unanimously selected by AGA's board last week to lead the association, which is celebrating its centennial year. Torgerson is to begin his one-year term on Jan. 1. As AGA chairman for 2019, the plan is to focus on innovation.

"It's in our best interest to make sure that our customers are using natural gas the best way possible and as efficiently as possible,” he said. “We want to look and make sure that we're using whatever technology is available and thinking about innovating in different ways."

According to Torgerson, Avangrid, which owns eight electric and natural gas utilities that collectively serve 3.2 million customers in New York and New England, plans to make significant investments over the next five years. He said the utilities alone plan to spend about $9.4 billion, most of which would be devoted to infrastructure improvements.

"For the gas industry, with the aging pipes that we, particularly in New York and Connecticut, we're going to spend a little over $500 million over the next five years just replacing cast iron or bare steel pipes in those two states alone," Torgerson said during a media event Friday in Washington, DC.

The issue of aging infrastructure, and the dangers posed by old iron and steel pipes, became front page news last September after a series of explosions in Massachusetts' Merrimack Valley that killed one man and damaged or destroyed about 80 structures. The Natural Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) later attributed the explosions to overpressurization. Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, a NiSource company, has since replaced 48 miles of mainline.

"It was just tragic what happened," Torgerson said. "You really feel for the people. It's getting better, but they're not all back in their homes yet."

As AGA looks to help rebuild public confidence in the safety of natural gas, Torgerson said he was proud of the way the industry responded to the incident. "Now we've got to make sure that we have the procedures and policies in place and that people are acting on them to make sure this overpressurization doesn't happen again," he said, adding that the trade association held 16 peer reviews on safety in 2018.

AGA CEO Dave McCurdy, who plans to retire in February, said that following the explosions in Massachusetts, "virtually every company went back and reviewed their procedures and status of when you have low-pressure systems."

McCurdy also touched on a separate incident that occurred last March, when a 12-year-old girl was killed following an explosion in northwest Dallas. The explosion was attributed to heavy rainfall and flooding, which in turn put pressure on gas lines operated by Dallas-based Atmos Energy Corp.

Although the NTSB "does a great job," McCurdy said the challenge of working with the government is that many agencies, like NTSB, are short-staffed.

"When they're doing studies, it's difficult because they don't release a lot of the information to us because of their [ongoing] investigation," McCurdy said. "They'll do an overview, but often it takes one to two years to get their reports completed. We can't wait for that, and we don't wait for that.

McCurdy said AGA shares as much information as it can, and that the association's safety committee welcomed presentations by the CEOs of Atmos and NiSource, who shared "what they know, what they were working on, and what we ought to be proactively looking at.

"We're not waiting for regulation, dictates or legislation," McCurdy said. "It wouldn't be serving our customers if we didn't take that forward-moving approach. It's not always easing getting consensus. Some of these practices are going to push, and they may not apply specifically in all regions, but we provide real options that should enhance safety."

Cybersecurity Not Taken Lightly

Working with government agencies and sharing information with natural gas utilities is also of critical importance in the cybersecurity sphere, Torgerson said.

"The biggest thing we have to do is work with the government partners on getting actionable information on threats and vulnerabilities related to cybersecurity -- and physical security, for that matter -- and make sure it's distributed out to the utilities and energy companies that need that information," Torgerson said.

AGA launched an information sharing and analysis centers (ISAC) for the downstream sector in 2014. McCurdy said the ISAC has since been opened up to the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, the American Public Gas Association, the Canadian Gas Association and others.

"The good thing is, with the downstream natural gas ISAC and electric ISAC, they're working together on this," Torgerson said. "They're sharing information and getting the information from the government when there is a threat or some vulnerability that's been identified. It then gets communicated directly to all of us.

"Even at my own company, the FBI now is working proactively with us, to come in and talk to us about things they're hearing and making sure that our systems are being secured against these threats. And they give us enough information that we can modify our systems."

Cybersecurity "is not something to be trifled with or even taken lightly,” Torgerson said. "There are actors out there who are trying to disrupt our systems, and get information out of them. The good thing is we're working with the government. Five years ago, that wasn't even happening.

“I have to give a lot of people credit -- mostly the CEOs at the natural gas and electric industry who got together and said we've got to work with the government and start sharing information, get security clearances so people can hear about what's going on."

McCurdy, a former Democratic representative from Oklahoma, revealed that he still has such a security clearance. While handling cybersecurity issues by the government and the industry "has gotten better, but if you have Russia, China, Iran, North Korea are a few other nasty players out there trying to penetrate your system, there's a threat,” he said

Jobs Still An Issue

As previous incoming AGA chairmen have stated in the past, the issue of an aging workforce and the ability to attract new talent still looms over the natural gas industry.

"It's still an issue," Torgerson said. Avangrid "has 350-400 open positions right now that we're recruiting actively to fill, and it's across the board, everywhere in the company. The labor force is really tight right now. We've been doing a lot of work with military who have retired and come out of the service, and trying to recruit them because of their skill set into utility jobs."

AGA has apprentice programs in place to attract people interested in a long-term career in the utility business, Torgerson said, and has partnered with high schools, technical schools and universities.

"We need to figure out how to recruit people and get them trained. Working with people who were in the military is a great way to do it. They come out and they have the discipline. That's the way it is at utilities -- a lot of discipline and procedures and practices that you have to follow. They're very good. It's great to be able to attract military people to do that."

McCurdy said the aging workforce is still a continuous issue, but that it has also evolved. "On one hand, we kept saying there was going to be this 'tidal wave' of coming retirements, but the retirements have been coming and are occurring.

“But the industry is absorbing it and taking it on and preparing,” McCurdy said. “We haven't seen quite the dramatic impact, and yet it is a day-to-day issue. And they have to deal with it probably more locally than some kind of national effort.

"The veterans' effort has been a significant one,” and one that is not easy. “They do have skills, but they're not always aligned, and so there has to be training."