GMRC Board Chair Michael Smith was interviewed for the June 2017 issue of the Pipeline & Gas Journal.
Based in Dallas, the Gas Machinery Research Council (GMRC) is a subsidiary of the Southern Gas Association, which manages it. GMRC is a community of proactive natural gas companies dedicated to resolving technical issues within the rapidly evolving gas machinery industry.
GMRC was founded in 1952 in response to the rapid expansion of natural gas pipeline facilities in the United States following World War II. It continues to support and fund research of gas compression and related equipment to improve the quality and efficiency of pipeline facilities and compressor stations.
The 2016-17 chairman of GMRC is Michael A. Smith, vice president and project director at EnSite USA. In this interview, Smith recounts his involvement with and vision for the organization and the industry.
P&GJ: How did you find yourself in the energy business, and what brought you at EnSite USA?
Smith: I graduated from Louisiana Tech University with a mechanical engineering degree in the early ’80s, which actually corresponded with a downturn in the oil and gas industry. I went to work for Bingham-Willamette Pump Company, which I had to co-opt with while in college. Bingham had been producing many pump packages for Aramco at the time, but the business was rapidly slowing. So, I moved over to Schlumberger for a few years in the well-logging division. I then started a long tenure with Texas Gas Transmission in Owensboro, KY. Fast forward to today, I’ve been in the industry for almost 35 years with 22 years at operating companies. I stayed in the oil and gas industry the other years as well with service, engineering and manufacturing companies.
I’ve greatly enjoyed my wide range of experiences in this industry. My early years at Texas Gas with the cradle-to-grave model of doing projects were an excellent training tool for my advancement in the industry. The project engineer had to design the facility, purchase the equipment, write the construction contract, choose the contractor and then go to the field to lead the installation and commissioning of the facilities.
My experiences have encompassed many facets of our industry including pipelines, compressor stations, pumping stations and process plants in the transmission and midstream sectors. I’ve experienced all of these areas of the business through my various roles in design, project management, operations, construction and manufacturing.
Understanding the differences between the ideals of transmission and midstream (i.e., 30-plus-year design vs. first-to-market) and the business drivers for operating companies vs. service and manufacturing companies is certainly helpful when doing business between the entities. Mergers of transmission companies and the increase in midstream operators in recent years have led to much comingling of resources in our industry. This, coupled with today’s regulatory and business climate, has somewhat reduced the different philosophies of these companies, but there are still many differences in the business models and goals of these entities that service companies must understand.
EnSite USA is a mid-sized engineering company that performs design, project management, survey, GIS, land and construction-management services. EnSite is a good fit for me because the size allows us to execute large projects while still being quick and responsive to the customer’s needs. The company’s values and interests are aligned with my own. My focus now is on plant facilities.
P&GJ: How did you end up involved with GMRC?
Smith: GMRC is a fantastic, energetic organization that I have been lucky enough to be involved with for nearly 20 years. I was introduced to GMRC when Bob Bass from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) referred me to GMRC’s Research Advisory Committee (RAC). I had visited SwRI many times, overseeing the execution of acoustic and piping studies, and Bob thought I would be an asset to RAC.
In the late ’90s, the committee was disbanded and later recreated as the Project Supervisory Committee (PSC), which I was asked to join. I was also asked to become a member of the Gas Machinery Conference (GMC) Planning Committee. Chairmanship of the GMC changes each year, and the chairman is drafted from the Planning Committee. I served as chairman 2004.
I subsequently became chairman of the PSC and a member of the GMRC Board of Directors, which I served on for several years. I became board chairman in 2016 and took on more responsibility with the organization as a whole.
P&GJ: As chairman of GMRC, what has been your focus and top priority?
Smith: The biggest challenge our members face is the transition of knowledge and how to effectively access and store that knowledge. Our industry has a large gap in our pool of experience. We have many people with 25, 30 or more years of experience but many others with 10 years or less of experience. That 15-20 years of experience group we’re missing is likely due to the previous downturns in the industry.
P&GJ: What are some of the steps the GMRC is taking to help resolve this challenge?
Smith: The GRMC board and its committees are focused on training and education in an effort to download all of the institutional knowledge from that more experienced group before we lose them to retirements. I always stress when promoting GMRC that the only thing worse than training your people and having them leave is not training them and having them stay. GMRC meets this need through guidelines, workshops and of course the Gas Machinery Conference. The GMC is the portal through which many people get involved with GMRC.
P&GJ: How vital in the conference in this effort?
Smith: GMC is the premier conference in our industry, and it’s certainly the best training value for the dollar out there. In 2016, there were 61 technical papers, short courses and technology updates, and fees were kept very low. Registered engineers who attend can easily get their entire year’s worth of professional development hours. It is the best training value for your dollar and a great networking venue.
P&GJ: Can you discuss the value of research?
Smith: Research topics are another main focus for us. We’ve been trying to get input through various avenues on what research is required for our industry because we want to be as relevant and as timely as possible. This should be simple with people flooding us with research needs, jumping at the opportunity to use GMRC research funds to solve their problems. That has not been the case. One problem is that some issues have been around for many years and people have been finding work-arounds for so long that they aren’t considered issues or problems anymore! That perception is the issue. GMRC has the resources to help the technology work more efficiently and that is our end goal.
P&GJ: How has GMRC’s role in the industry changed in recent years? What do you see as the role of GMRC in the future?
Smith: GMRC is 65 years old and our role in the industry has slowly been changing since inception. When I first started with GMRC, the big focus was on integral reciprocating natural gas compressors. That was the majority of the compressors in the gas transmission industry but the landscape is changing as far as “machinery” is concerned. The vast majority of transmission companies are installing turbine horsepower and centrifugal compressors while the midstream companies are installing separable engine/compressor or motor/compressor units.
Keeping true to our calling as GMRC, we are not limiting ourselves to integrals, recips or transmission. Our role is to focus on all gas machinery that is “inside the fence” of compressor stations, whether transmission or midstream, rotating or reciprocating or even static, for that matter. GMRC historically focused on the compressor or “cold” side, and another, complementary and superb industry organization, Pipeline Research Council International (PRCI), usually focused on the engine or “hot” side. That line is blurring with many crossovers, and quite a few projects have been jointly funded and supervised by both GMRC and PRCI.
P&GJ: What is another challenge facing GMRC members?
Smith: GMRC is also trying to solve recurring issues of vibration and pulsations. Now with shale gases, we are also focusing on the liquids in the gas. While pulsations and vibrations have always been a focus of GMRC, and actually the reason the organization was created, the midstream sector in general and shale gases in particular have brought the issue of heavy gases and liquid dropout to the forefront. GMRC is funding needed research in this area that can be applied across the industry to drive us all forward.
P&GJ: Are there any recent changes within the GMRC worthy to note?
Smith: GMRC has a new website in the works that should go live later this year. It will be much more user-friendly and more informative. Other goals are to develop more training and guidelines aimed at the midstream arena and possibly the development of software tools to aid in construction management.
P&GJ: Has GMRC been working more closing with other associations on any pertinent topics?
Smith: GMRC works very closely with PRCI ensuring we are not working in a vacuum on the same issues and missing opportunities to advance the industry together. We even host a PRCI liaison on the GMRC Board of Directors. Typical topics we partner on include emissions and wet gas issues.
P&GJ: When your term as GMRC chairman ends, how will you be able to determine whether it was successful?
Smith: My definition of success for GMRC will be new training programs, continued growth in research opportunities and continued growth in attendance at the Gas Machinery Conference, both in terms of abstracts submitted for presentation and attendees. I also hope to see many new faces in the volunteer ranks of GMRC from existing members as well as several new member companies from the midstream side.
P&GJ: What is your most memorable experience at GMRC to date?
Smith: I have really enjoyed the successful way the board works together for the good of the organization and the industry. The Southern Gas Association board is mostly operating companies as is PRCI. GMRC, however, is generally composed of half operators and half vendors. The committees have a similar makeup. Many are competitors. But when everyone comes to the board or committee meetings, they have their GMRC hat on – not their company hat or their personal agenda hat.
It’s important to remember we’re there as an industry committee to bring about positive change for everyone and that is what you see happening. Don’t get me wrong, in some meetings, discussions could get heated, but it was never about competition against each other, rather a competing passion for the industry. The committees and the board of GMRC are populated with volunteers who are affected by the same issues which the industry in general has to address. They are a dedicated group because they have a real drive to make the industry better. It’s that passion to further the industry and spur innovation through research that makes GMRC great and sets the organization apart from others.