This article originally appeared in the March 2019 Midstream Business supplement to Oil and Gas Investor magazine.

One of the energy industry’s leading trade groups—GPA Midstream Association—is nearing its centennial. Founded to provide important technical, research and safety services, today the Tulsa, Okla.-based organization does those things and much more.

Mark Sutton, its president and CEO, joined GPA Midstream more than 30 years ago following a distinguished career at Mid-America Pipeline Co. He visited with Midstream Business to discuss what the organization offers now as the industry continues to evolve.

MIDSTREAM We have readers who are new to the midstream and may not be familiar with your association. Could you provide some background?
          We are an energy trade association made up of midstream energy companies. We have a sister organization, GPSA, made up of midstream service suppliers to the industry. Our staff supports both organizations.

We were formed back in 1921 specifically to address the chaos around the sector’s only product at the time, known then as drip gasoline. This drip gasoline was a wonderful additive to the motor fuel pool of the day—except we couldn’t always get it to market safely.

The industry had an issue: This drip gasoline sometimes blew up in railcars while it was being transported across the country to be blended into the gasoline blendstock pool. After a few accidents, the industry realized it had a really valuable product that, as a result, nobody wanted. The association was formed thereafter and it went quickly about getting our technical house in order so we could safely sell this valuable product.

We’ve undergone four name changes to date, and after some 98 years of work we’re still serving this industry. We have evolved over time to meet the needs of our members and the sector. Today, we focus on advocacy, education and training, market information, research and technical issues, and safety.

I’ve been involved with GPA Midstream’s technical and training and educational efforts for most of my career here.

Read: GPA Midstream Leader Sutton Retires

MIDSTREAM What would you regard as the top priorities nowadays for the association and the sector it serves?

SUTTON The association has changed over the years to meet the industry’s needs. Nowadays, that means we’re doing much more in the way of advocacy and education.

We have an aging workforce issue. The average age of employees at our member companies is 50 years old. Between 40% and 60% of our aging employees will retire in the next five years. That says something right there: What are we going to do about it?

Since 1981, our industry has lost over 1 million jobs—1 million employees. That’s significant. These numbers indicate that we’re in the process of a major workforce change in the next few years. In order for us to prepare for this, and in order to keep from learning all of the old Human Resources lessons over again, there are roles that companies need to play and roles that GPA Midstream needs to play.

In my mind, the company roles are to hire the best and the brightest employees they can find. It doesn’t matter whether they’re engineers, business people or technical folks. Just hire the best people you can find because you can train them up.

We need to keep the industry veterans as long as it’s feasible to help train these new employees. And lastly, a company needs to keep track of its best practices that were developed by its own veterans on staff and make sure that knowledge is transferred to these employees.

The association’s role involves training and recruitment.

MIDSTREAM You opened an office in Washington, D.C., several years ago as part of your advocacy outreach. Wasn’t that a switch for an association that historically has been focused on research and technical issues?

SUTTON Maybe it was but as I said, GPA Midstream has evolved to respond to the needs of the industry. Our board felt that some of the biggest challenges the industry faces today are in the political and policy arenas. Much of the public and many leaders in Washington and the state capitals are unaware of the midstream’s role in sustaining our economy.

We see advocacy as very important in today’s political climate. We have to have a seat at the table when it comes to drafting legislation and policies. We provide a lot of basic information to administrators.

There have been situations where government agencies were drafting rules and regulations that would heavily impact our business yet the people working up the policies had zero expertise in what we do. We’re here to help them, to explain what goes on and why it’s important. Everyone gains from that.

MIDSTREAM What is the association doing to keep its vast resource of technical information in order?

SUTTON One, we need to continue developing and maintaining technical standards and practices, which are developed by committees made up of industry experts, and make certain they reflect what the industry needs going into the future.

As I said, GPA Midstream’s roots are very deep on the technical side of the industry. We need to build on that knowledge.

GPA Midstream needs to continue our cooperative research program and ensure that it continues to obtain and publish the most relevant and needed physical property data. We also need to provide quality educational training opportunities that assist the industry in managing that generational workforce transition over the next five to 10 years.

Our technical committees have developed, and we maintain, 29 industry standards and reference bulletins. We’ve also published 200-plus research reports. Several more industry standards are in the pipeline now and our technical committees are working on them.

Our standards range from determining the heating value of natural gas—read that as ‘the cash register’ for our industry—to sampling our products and determining whether they’re on specification or not. I can’t stress enough how important these efforts are in keeping the industry's technical house in good order.

Now, I’m prejudiced, but I think all of our technical standards are important. But please allow me to mention two in particular that give a flavor for what these standards do.

First, GPA Standard 2140 sets the specs for fractionation-grade ethane and commercial propane and butane. The standard originally was published in 1940. That’s a long time ago, but we have maintained it ever since.

Also, GPA Standard 2145 specifies the physical properties that our products trade upon through the U.S. and the world. This is stuff like relative density and molecular weight, things that you need in all your calculations to determine the value of a product.

MIDSTREAM Do you work with other trade associations or research groups?

SUTTON Yes, we are actively solving many of the midstream industry’s technical challenges through our cooperative research program. This work is directed by two of our subgroups, which are staffed by some of the best technical minds that our industry has to offer.

The budget for this work is modest, it’s some $650,000 for 2019, but it has proved that our program is practical, economic and efficient. We can do this valuable work on such a tight budget because our subgroups are all volunteers. If we had to pay these volunteers what they’re worth, our program would easily need to be funded in the millions of dollars on an annual basis. We can’t afford that.

This creates tremendous value for the industry. We received a report from the Gas Research Institute that studied our research program. It estimated that, basically, every $1 invested in our program paid back more than $10 in a rate of return on investment to the industry.

That’s big time, and we’ve been doing this since 1960.

MIDSTREAM Can you discuss the association’s research efforts?

SUTTON We oversee and direct work to obtain physical property data and publish these thermophysical data to improve the predictive models that our industry uses to design gas processing facilities. In other words, we go out and get a bucket and a thermometer and measure data points, publish them, and we hope that all these process simulation programs, all these companies that provide them, incorporate them into their models for greater efficiency and profitability.

Our program serves as a highly effective and efficient means of identifying and prioritizing the industry’s data needs. It serves to audit, compile and evaluate available data and computational methods. It also serves in designing and supervising experimental measurements. These experiments are done by the investigators that we use and they’re from all over the world. Our work also provides the computational tools for accurate and economic design of midstream facilities.

Once again, it’s all about publishing the data and getting it to the process simulation folks. Anything that improves design and makes operations safer is a good thing.

MIDSTREAM Educational programs are one of your core services.

SUTTON Correct, we have our GPA Midstream Convention in April of every year. I don’t know how familiar everyone is with our convention but it is one response to the training challenges of the workforce changeover, which I mentioned earlier. This year’s convention will be April 14-17 in San Antonio.

Our convention provides an outstanding opportunity to provide education and training to over 2,000 midstream professionals. It offers research paper presentations and roundtable discussions on multiple topics.

We changed our convention program in 2018 to make it more relevant. We now offer three distinct learning tracks. We have a technical track, we have a commercial track, and we have an advocacy and compliance track.

Of course, there’s also an additional benefit of attending our convention, which is the networking side of the business. Our convention has outstanding networking opportunities and I don't know another meeting like it in the world.

Another educational and training tool that our sister organization publishes for the industry is the GPSA Engineering Data Book. This publication has been referenced by many in the industry as the Bible for the industry. It is the authoritative reference for design and technical information pertaining to the midstream industry.

We were directed by our board of directors at its December 2018 meeting in Dallas to convert the book to a web-based format.

MIDSTREAM That’s certainly a creative use of technology. What’s changing with the Data Book and how long will it take?

SUTTON It really is very creative and I’m excited about it. Future editions of the Data Book will be in the Internet cloud and it will be available on a subscription basis for member companies. This will ensure that anybody—looking at an iPad or a laptop, even perhaps a cell phone if you want—has the most recent version of the Data Book.

The 14th edition of the book was published in 2016, but we know some may be looking at the 11th edition or the 12th edition that got pulled off a bookshelf, something that is out of date. Once the cloud-based version becomes available, you don’t have to worry about whether you have the latest edition on hand because everything will be updated in real time.

First, we’re working now to post a simple PDF version of the book this spring. Later, we plan to have a totally interactive version available online that also will feature links to spreadsheets, graphs, video and audio. A subscription to our Data Book will become integral to a GPA Midstream membership.

MIDSTREAM Gas chromatography is a basic technical function of natural gas processing and GPA Midstream has provided training for this function for many years. What’s changing there?

SUTTON You’re correct, gas chromatography is used in analytical chemistry to separate and analyze compounds. We use it in the midstream to analyze and determine the various components of natural gas and NGL.

For over 45 years GPA Midstream has offered the industry training in gas chromatography. This is a full, one-week school and it teaches gas chromatograph operators how to reliably perform GPA Midstream-standard methods of sampling and analyzing natural gas and gas liquids.

Again, we depend on volunteers for this valuable program, and it’s considered one of the best available in the world. We have 30-some instructors and typically we have 80 to 100 students in each class, so the ratio of instructor to student is really good.

It’s focused on the current operating standards of chromatography. The school is held one time a year on the campus of the University of Tulsa.

MIDSTREAM What other training programs do you offer?

SUTTON We have a couple of other training courses and we are proud of them. One is an Introduction to Midstream course. It teaches new or inexperienced midstream personnel what actually happens at an operating facility.

Of course, it uses the GPSA Data Book as a reference. It’s a three-day course that we hold at least once a year. Also, we have just begun to offer this course to companies for internal employee training. If a company wants, we can bring this course in-house if you have a bunch of new employees who are not experienced in the industry, say accountants or maybe human resources specialists. It’s not for engineers necessarily.

Another recent training course that we’re extremely proud of is our GPSA Engineering Data Book training. This course trains students in the fundamentals of how best to utilize the Data Book. It’s targeted at new or inexperienced engineers and we conduct at least two courses per year.

That’s really important because our members have found many young engineers don’t use the book. This gets into the employee turnover question. Some new engineers just ask somebody a question about problems that older, experienced employee have handled. Or, newer employees often just search the Internet for answers.

All this means that sometimes they get the right answer and sometimes they don’t.

So we’re really proud that this school can actually train people on how to use the Data Book. Like the intro-to-midstream course, we have started offering internal training too. For example, The Williams Cos. has done this at its headquarters in Tulsa, Okla.

Another formal training opportunity that we’re involved in consists of a partnership with Oklahoma State University’s Institute of Technology in Okmulgee, Okla. There are two separate programs offered. One is a gas compression technician training course and the other is a pipeline integrity training course.

These courses are intended for those looking for technical careers and I’m pleased to say that students completing them have an almost 100% employment rate.

MIDSTREAM Are these courses with OSU the only programs you offer students looking at gas processing as a career?

SUTTON No, not at all. One of the things that GPSA and GPA Midstream have done over the course of many years is to provide funding for scholarships, typically for engineering students. However, we have found we can’t control whether these students will come into our industry when they graduate. For example, they might just as easily take our training, then work at, say, a DuPont or some other chemical company outside the midstream.

Now, we’re gearing these two programs essentially provide 100% of the graduates into our industry, which is really, I think, a good thing. The graduates earn a two-year technology degree.
Another formal education opportunity that we’re involved with is our endorsement of the Energy Management Program of the business school at the University of Tulsa. This program offers a midstream track that our executive committee and our board has endorsed. It provides education and the fundamentals of gas processing, midstream business applications, safety, health and environmental concepts, and many other midstream-specific topics. Companies like ONEOK Inc., Magellan Midstream Partners and Phillips 66 Co. have blessed the curriculum and look to hire future business graduates from this program.

MIDSTREAM You mentioned the value of networking at your convention. Do you consider that training?

SUTTON Yes, of course. I think it’s good to look at some of the informal training that GPA Midstream offers its member companies. It’s an overlooked benefit.

I call it “informal leadership training” and what I mean by that is when a company actively gets their volunteers, their employees, engaged in GPA Midstream committees and activities, it provides that organization an informal way to build leaders by participation, whether that be leading a taskforce to revise a standard or maybe leading a committee.

This participation benefits both the company and its employees. We pursue any chance we get to encourage management of our member companies to get their people involved and engaged.

We actually had one company that I won’t name here that added to its performance evaluation program an employee’s efforts on GPA Midstream committees and leadership of GPA activities.

Obviously, I’m biased—I love that idea—but I’d love to see other companies to do that. This is a somewhat intangible benefit but I think it’s important if you get engaged.