December 2022, Vol. 249, No. 12


APGA Chairman Remains Focused on Safety, Advocacy

By Michael Reed, P&GJ Editor-in-Chief 

(P&GJ) — As a retired Army Colonel with over 40 years of practical operational and logistics experience, John Olshefski, the Chairman of the Board for the American Public Gas Association (APGA), has all the skills required to lead the organization.

John Olshefski

His talents have also served him well in his current role as senior vice president of Customer Care at Huntsville Utilities in Alabama, and prior to that as a Huntsville city councilman between 2010 and 2014.  

In this interview, Olshefski, who has a Bachelor of Arts degree from The Citadel, a master’s degree from Central Michigan, and a master’s degree from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, discusses APGA’s advocacy for the natural gas industry and his priorities for the association during his tenure, as well as other topics.  

P&GJ: What led you to a career in natural gas and eventually your current position?   

Olshefski:  It is pretty simple – I was brought into Huntsville Utilities (HU), which is an electric, water and gas utility, as a vice president for Customer Care. After a year or so, our CEO, knowing that our utility’s current APGA board member was retiring, asked if I would be interested in representing HU on the APGA Board of Directors.   

As HU is the 16th-largest municipality of the 1,000-plus municipalities in the country, my boss felt it was important to have an HU leader on the APGA Board of Directors. Our CEO is a board member on the TVPPA [Tennessee Valley Public Power Association] Board representing HU’s electrical side, and he felt it was right to have representation on the APGA Board of Directors as well. More than seven years later, I have moved my way up in APGA to be Chairman.  

P&GJ: Can you tell our readers a little about Huntsville Utilities and your role there?  

Olshefski: HU is a three-service municipality with electric, water and gas. We have about 210,000 electric customers, 102,000 water customers, and 62,000 gas customers. HU supports the largest city in Alabama in population per capita. The city of Huntsville ranks in the top three in just about any magazine that ranks cities in growth and/or best places to live, work and play. The city of Huntsville supports the second-largest research park in the country and has a workforce that supports the economic engine at Redstone Arsenal, where over 42,000 folks go to work every day.   

I am blessed to be on the Huntsville Utilities team that continues to grow in support of the unprecedented growth of our city and county. Our team has yet to say “no” to anything that is asked of HU.  

P&GJ: What are your top priorities at APGA for the coming year?  

Olshefski: There are a number of challenges facing public gas systems and the natural gas industry as a whole. These challenges range from increases in the price of natural gas to some states and localities, removing the ability of consumers to place natural gas appliances in their house.   

We have also seen appliance efficiency standards, such as a proposed furnace rule, which in our view would push people away from natural gas furnaces. For this reason, I have chosen “Freedom to Fuel” as the theme for my year as APGA Chairman. I believe it is critical that we fight to preserve the ability of consumers to choose the appliance that is right for them rather than having fuel choices taken away from them.  

Pipeline safety has always been a priority for APGA, and with Congress expected to begin work on reauthorizing the Pipeline Safety Act in the next session, APGA will be focused on practical measures that will enhance pipeline safety. As we have seen with the Colonial Pipeline and other cyberattacks, there needs to be a continued focus on security, both physical as well as cyber — this will also be a priority of APGA’s over the next year and well into the future.  

P&GJ: How are APGA and its members addressing the opposition to natural gas pipeline expansion?   

Olshefski: Americans are facing higher energy prices, and one reason for this increase is the lack of infrastructure. Natural gas is clean, affordable, reliable and delivered safely through pipelines. In addition, renewable natural gas (RNG) and hydrogen can provide balanced energy solutions, helping Americans further lessen environmental impacts, all while still using the existing, safe and resilient infrastructure and any newly built pipelines.   

Any practical reason to oppose natural gas pipelines is unfounded. APGA members are stressing to the public and policymakers their record of safe operation and their focus on protecting the environment, so pipelines need to be built to ensure continued energy delivery. Public natural gas utilities are engaging in Capitol Hill discussions on streamlining the pipeline permitting process as well as in regulatory proceedings, such as at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). With more pipeline infrastructure, Americans will have continued access to clean, affordable, reliable and safely delivered energy.  

P&GJ: What are some of the biggest challenges that natural gas providers must overcome in the short term?   

Olshefski: Policymakers have the choice to pursue an all-of-the-above energy approach, which will unleash innovation and not let government pick winners or losers. Putting “all eggs in one basket,” or forced electrification, is not appropriate for our country. It is a costly and unreliable solution.   

I am looking forward to working with APGA members in educating our congressmen and senators, as well as those in the administration, on the need for practical policies for our country’s clean energy future, including ensuring Americans have access to clean, affordable and reliable natural gas.   

P&GJ: Are there any new or pending regulatory requirements that are of special concern to APGA members?   

Olshefski: We all have appliances in our homes and businesses, some of which are fueled by natural gas. Many Americans may not know, but the ability to buy or repair certain appliances could be significantly impacted by pending appliance efficiency rulemakings being advanced by the Department of Energy (DOE).   

Specifically, there is potential for a new rulemaking on residential furnaces. DOE could potentially force fuel switching from natural gas to electricity through this proceeding. While the furnace effort is likely the most impactful, APGA is monitoring other appliance efficiency rulemakings to ensure DOE is not mandating electrification or taking away consumer energy choice.  

P&GJ: Do APGA and its members see growth potential involving pipelines and hydrogen gas? If so, in what specific ways?   

Olshefski: APGA’s members agree that there is a need to act and decrease emissions in operations. There is a specific focus on reducing leaks. As well, several public gas utilities are exploring new fuels that can be transported through their pipelines to customers, supporting our country’s goals for a clean energy future.   

Hydrogen has the capability to be blended with natural gas or possibly used exclusively. Both have decreased emissions. Given this, public natural gas utilities are exploring how to transport blended hydrogen or hydrogen exclusively to be safely used in homes, businesses and commercial applications. Low-carbon fuels can be best delivered using the existing pipelines that APGA members operate. Also, the public natural gas utility workforce is in place to keep this infrastructure maintained and safe.   

APGA members look forward to serving their customers for many, many years in delivering clean, affordable and reliable natural gas now and the low-carbon fuels in the future.  

P&GJ: Turning to pipeline safety and operational issues, what are APGA’s priorities?  

Olshefski: In the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) was authorized to execute a grant program specifically for publicly or community-owned gas systems. The five-year program provides funding for the repair or replacement of aging natural gas infrastructure and investment in methane emission mitigation technologies.  

The natural gas systems selected for PHMSA Natural Gas Distribution Infrastructure Safety and Modernization grants will be able to accelerate their system modernization, which ultimately means fewer leak-prone pipes in service and more state-of-the-art leak detection equipment in use. APGA provided resources to all publicly and community-owned gas systems during the 2022 application period and will continue to support those public gas systems awarded a grant and during future application cycles.  

P&GJ: What, if anything, about your job keeps you awake at night?   

Olshefski: That would be what happened last year with the pipelines because of the cold weather in Texas and other areas of the country not typically accustomed to severe cold weather, which caused astronomical rate increases to many of our gas municipalities.   

APGA has supported having safeguards in place to protect consumers from these types of price increases in the future. I am deeply concerned about the impact a similar type of weather event will have if we don’t have safeguards in place.   

I also am concerned about a lack of liquidity in natural gas price indices. These indices play a critical role because they are used to price billions of dollars of natural gas in both the physical and financial energy markets. A lack of liquidity in these indices could result in greater price volatility in an already volatile natural gas marketplace. 

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