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A Q&A with PLCA Managing Director Elizabeth Worrell

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Elizabeth WorrellIn January, the Pipe Line Contractors Association (PLCA) welcomed Elizabeth Worrell, as its new managing director, following the retirement of J. Patrick Tielborg at the end of 2017. Like Tielborg, who served as managing director for 40 years, Worrell is an attorney for the law firm of Akin Gump Straus Hauer & Feld. She specializes in labor, employment and benefits law. Though new to the managing director role, Worrell is no stranger to the PLCA.

Shortly after arriving at Akin Gump, Worrell began working as outside labor/benefits counsel to the PLCA and over the years she has advised the PLCA on a variety of matters related to union negotiations, benefit fund obligations and government affairs. This work has allowed her the opportunity to get to know many of the PLCA’s member companies and build relationships throughout the association.

In 2016, the PLCA board of directors asked Worrell to join the PLCA as an “in house” attorney as part of the transition as Tielborg headed toward retirement. In January 2017, she joined the executive staff as Chief Legal Counsel and assumed the role of Managing Director in January 2018.

Outside of work, Worrell spends most of her free time at tee-ball games and soccer practices as a mom of twin 5-year-old boys. She also loves to cook and spend time with family and friends at their lake house in New Hampshire.

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1) How did you become involved with the oil and gas industry and specifically the PLCA?

Akin Gump has an extensive energy practice and does a great deal of work with the oil and gas industry. Throughout my time at the law firm, I’ve been able to work with a diverse group of clients from across various segments of the industry including utilities, exploration and production companies, frac service companies and infrastructure service providers, in addition to my PLCA work. By the time I joined the PLCA, my Akin Gump practice had become almost exclusively focused on clients in the energy industry.

2) How does being based in D.C. impact your role vs. being located in Dallas?

PLCA is still located in Dallas but the PLCA board of directors is currently evaluating whether to maintain the association’s Dallas headquarters or move to Washington, D.C. For the time being, I regularly commute to Dallas to work out of our Dallas office. However, because the PLCA is housed in Akin Gump’s Dallas office, I have the flexibility to work out of Akin Gump’s D.C. office with little impact on my day-to-day work. To be honest, I travel so frequently on PLCA business that it doesn’t feel like I’m in Dallas or Washington, D.C., very often!

3) What challenges are there in taking over a role your predecessor had for almost 40 years

There is always a bit of a learning curve when you join a new organization and I expected that when I joined the PLCA. I was fortunate to have a year to work alongside Pat before he retired and I tried to download as much information from him as possible. Pat brought an extraordinary amount of knowledge and experience to the PLCA that I will never be able to replicate. But I will, along with the PLCA staff and the board of directors, do my best to maintain the standards that Pat set while the PLCA forges its new path forward.

I am grateful that everyone I’ve come into contact with so far — from the PLCA membership, to our union partners, to the broader industry groups and coalitions that the PLCA works with — has been extremely welcoming and supportive which has certainly helped my transition into this role. I am also fortunate to work with an engaged, proactive, and supportive board of directors which provides me with a terrific resource as I get up to speed on the various issues confronting the association and the industry more broadly.

The biggest day-to-day challenge of joining the PLCA is the need to quickly master the details and finer points of all four NPLAs. My prior work with the PLCA as outside counsel gave me a head start but these details are absolutely critical to the consistent administration and enforcement of our labor agreements throughout the industry. I’m fortunate to have an executive director by my side, Kevin Barrett, who has a deep working knowledge of the NPLAs which has greatly accelerated my learning curve.

4) What are your priorities as PLCA managing director?

My priority as PLCA managing director will always be to support the membership (and the industry more broadly) to help ensure that the end-user customers, and therefore the general public, receive the highest quality construction and maintenance services with a focus on safety, quality, efficiency, environmental compliance, and community support. The question of how best to fulfill that goal will constantly be evaluated by me and the board of directors to make sure we are proactively addressing the challenges and also taking full advantage of the opportunities that our members are confronted with.

My immediate priority is evaluating the portfolio of membership services that PLCA offers to make sure we are doing all we can to support our members as well as the industry. I am working closely with the board of directors and having regular discussions with our union partners to identify where we might be able to do better to best support our membership.

5) The PLCA celebrates 70 years this year. What is the association’s legacy, and how do you build on that?

Historically, the sole function of the PLCA was to negotiate and administer the NPLAs and to foster collaborative labor relations with the four industry unions. Given this backdrop, there is no doubt that the association’s legacy through its first 70 years is the enduring labor peace that industry has largely experienced. I’ve worked with clients in a variety of other unionized industries and it is no easy feat to maintain positive labor-management relationships over the course of several decades. The PLCA was central to creating the positive, respectful labor-management relationships that are the foundation of our industry.

Going forward, however, we all recognize that we are facing obstacles and challenges of a different nature. The days of labor-management issues being the biggest challenges in the industry are behind us. The PLCA is focused on broadening its role within the industry and the scope of issues that it will address on behalf of its members. In tackling these new problems, we will need to work even more closely with our union partners in order to develop a unified, mutually-beneficial path forward. The work that we jointly undertake with the unions to promote and preserve our industry will be the next phase of the PLCA’s legacy.

RELATED: Celebrating 70: PLCA Meets in Hawaii

6) In a time where large pipeline projects are routinely under fire, how has the role of PLCA changed?

There is no question that this is a unique time for the industry with a variety of challenges — from public opposition, to a difficult political and regulatory environment, to increasing non-union competition, to an aging workforce, etc. As I discussed above, the PLCA intends to embrace a more proactive approach to combating these challenges. We must tell our story better. We must continue to demonstrate our members’ unmatched commitment to safety, quality, environmental compliance, and community stewardship. We must continue to recruit, train, and develop the next generation of the skilled craftspeople and industry leaders. We must continue to show the value that PLCA Members bring to pipeline projects. The PLCA must increase its advocacy on behalf of its membership as well as the pipeline construction industry more broadly.

7) Other than the anti-fossil fuel movement, what is the No. 1 challenge PLCA members are facing?

While the industry certainly faces increasing opposition, the biggest challenge our members currently face may actually be a “good” problem. We recorded one of our strongest years ever in 2017 in terms of hours worked. And we are already ahead of that pace in 2018. That means, at the moment, our biggest challenge is making sure we are able to maintain the robust and highly skilled workforce that will clearly be needed throughout the U.S. to support all the jobs planned for 2018. The PLCA is focused on maximizing the available training resources and working with our union partners to make sure all of our members’ projects are completed on time, on budget, and with the highest level of skill, safety, quality and efficiency.

8) With one year under its belt, how has the new administration in Washington D.C. had an effect on PLCA members?

The administration’s focus on reducing the regulatory burden for U.S. businesses is certainly a welcome development for our membership. We also appreciate the support that the administration has shown for the construction industry and our union partners. We are, however, concerned about the impact that the recently-announced steel tariffs could have on pipeline projects going forward and we are monitoring this situation closely.

9) What is your outlook for the pipeline construction industry in 2018 and beyond?

I see great challenges but also great opportunities ahead for the pipeline construction industry. We must remain proactive to ensure that the opportunities that exist today still exist for the PLCA’s next 70 years. I believe we’re up to the task.

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