to Pipeline & Gas Journal
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.
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.
did you get into the business, and what made you want to make natural gas your
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.
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
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.
reasons that I have enjoyed my career in the natural gas industry are many, but
did you get involved with SGA, and what did you gain most as an association
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.
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.
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.
are the top priorities for SGA this year, and how have these changed in the
past few years?
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
do you feel members gain most for their participation?
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).
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.
the industry has changed in recent years, how has SGA changed in terms of the
types of companies that are now members?
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.
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.
the topic of safety, how are SGA and its members working to improve pipeline
and job 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
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.
research activities is SGA coordinating on with other associations?
Gas Association collaborates to share research from the Gas Machinery Research
Council (GMRC) and PRCI.
should the industry go about strengthening its perception by the public,
particularly in the face of growing opposition?
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
would you most like to see accomplished during your time as the organization’s
are three priorities which line up opportunities to strengthen the industry
perception and are also immediate business challenges we face:
P&GJ: You spent a fair amount
of time talking to people in the natural gas industry. Is there a
consensus outlook for 2023?
are the themes I am hearing and sharing with my peers regarding 2023:
industry will need to manage through this and maintain a safe, reliable, and
resilient fuel source all while keeping customer bills low. P&GJ