Todd Denton has earned a reputation as a champion of safety. Through his work as president of Houston-based Phillips 66 Pipeline LLC, his involvement in various industry groups and his collaboration with regulatory agencies, Denton has fostered numerous programs and initiatives that have improved pipeline safety performance across the board.
Denton works directly with the American Petroleum Institute (API), Association of Oil Pipe Lines (AOPL), Pipeline Research Council International (PRCI), the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and other organizations to bring about improvements to pipeline safety management systems (SMS), leak detection and inspection practices. He has also sought to enhance industry collaboration and stakeholder engagement.
It is because of these far-reaching industry achievements that Denton has been named the 2021 Pipeline Leadership Award winner. The annual award will be presented at the Pipeline Leadership Conference, Nov. 17-18, in Houston, organized by Benjamin Media Inc., publisher of North American Oil & Gas Pipelines, in cooperation with Continuum Capital.
As a member of API and AOPL, Denton serves as chair of the API-AOPL Pipeline Safety Excellence Steering Committee (PSE SC) and has become a renowned expert and champion for pipeline safety, says Dave Murk, manager of Pipelines, Midstream and Industry Operations at API. Murk has worked with Denton since 2016 through API’s Pipeline Subcommittee.
Murk explains that Denton has collaborated with other stakeholders in the liquid pipeline industry through the Pipeline Safety Excellence Initiative (PSEI) to establish shared safety principles and commit to a long-term strategy that promotes continuous improvement and excellent safety performance.
“Under Todd’s leadership as the PSE SC chair, and through the support of API and the AOPL, pipeline operators volunteer their time on industry-wide safety teams that provide pipeline operators with the tools they need to more effectively identify risks, inspect and maintain pipelines, respond to emergencies and detect potential leaks,” Murk says. “Additionally, through the PSEI, and Denton’s demonstrated commitment to safety, pipeline operators proactively share lessons learned from prior incidents and develop industry-wide best practices to improve pipeline safety, while working together to implement improvement recommendations.”
Under Denton’s leadership on multiple industry pipeline leadership committees, Murk adds that the liquid pipeline industry maintained a strong safety record throughout 2020, with pipeline safety performance improving across nearly every metric.
“Specifically, in 2020, total liquid pipeline incidents decreased 13 percent and are down 21 percent over the last five years,” Murk says. “A key liquid pipeline performance indicator of incidents impacting people or the environment shows a 13 percent decrease over the previous year and a 38 percent drop over the last five years.”
In addition to bringing about industry-wide safety performance improvements, Murk says that Denton’s leadership as president of Phillips 66 Pipeline has contributed to an outstanding year for employee safety and operational excellence, which in turn led to the company being selected as API’s 2020 Distinguished Pipeline Safety Award recipient in the large operator category.
“Todd has a very pragmatic approach to his leadership, bringing together a strong technical background with an ability to separate the forest from the trees and provide a strategic perspective so critical in helping shape and drive proactive initiatives in advancing pipeline safety,” Murk says. “Specifically, commitment to SMS, recognition of the importance of innovation and technology and understanding the importance of maintaining and sustaining strong relationships with the public, landowners and community stakeholders.”
Entering the Pipeline Industry
Denton grew up in West Texas and graduated from Texas Tech with an electrical engineering degree. Out of college, he got a job at a nuclear weapons assembly facility in 1986.
“It was the end of the Cold War, and it was an exciting time to be an electrical engineer just out of school because technology was changing so fast,” Denton says. “But at the same time, I was working for a government contractor, and it was very bureaucratic.”
In 1990, Denton started exploring other career paths and decided to apply for a job as a pipeline engineer with Diamond Shamrock, an oil refining and marketing company headquartered in San Antonio, Texas.
“I got the job and haven’t looked back,” Denton says, in explaining his career path. “I was fortunate in that I spent a lot of time in projects with Diamond Shamrock, then the company became part of Valero when it was acquired in 2001. In 2006, NuStar Energy spun out of Valero, so for 22 years I was with the same company, but the name kept changing.”
Denton spent about 15 years on the projects side and says he was fortunate to be involved with some larger pipeline projects. But then, he received a new opportunity.
“After Valero took over, I was approached to give operations a try, and in 2005 I went down to Corpus Christi to take on a new role,” Denton says. “I wasn’t sure I would like operations, but I ended up loving it, and that’s where I’ve been ever since.”
Denton joined Phillips 66 in 2012 when Conoco Phillips and Phillips 66 split. He says he joined the company at the right time, as the company was expanding its midstream business and making it a key part of its growth strategy. At first, his responsibilities were primarily the pipeline operations of the company. Now, he’s in charge of all midstream operations for Phillips 66, which includes 13,000 miles of pipeline, 39 refined product terminals and 73 million barrels of storage capacity, all of which is located within the United States.
Role of a Leader
Denton believes one of the most important roles of a leader is to develop a positive company culture. He wanted to build a culture of empowerment, starting with hiring the right people, with character, integrity and energy.
“Culture takes time, but it’s probably the most important thing a leader can instill in an organization,” he says.
Denton views leadership as doing what’s right.
“What separates good leaders is execution,” he says. “You can have vision and have the right people, but can you execute? My approach to that is simplicity. When people talk about goals, they’re often really good at coming up with 50 things. My approach is how do you take that and prioritize. Let’s focus on getting that down to three or four things.”
Denton believes if you overcomplicate matters, it becomes more difficult to execute.
Commitment to Safety
When Denton first began working on the operations side of the pipeline industry in 2005, he began to get more involved with different trade associations. He first got involved with API and AOPL in 2007, and his involvement grew from there.
“I was nominated to the AOPL board in 2010 or so, which was an interesting time,” Denton says. “When you go back to the Olympic Pipeline Bellingham incident in 1999, it was a real watershed moment for the industry, and it drove a lot of safety improvement in the industry, such as more in-line inspections (ILI). But those efforts only took us from not very good to just OK, to be honest.”
A series of high-profile pipeline incidents in 2010 and 2011 led to the industry’s next watershed moment, and that was when Denton moved into leadership roles with the associations.
“What we were talking about in the 2012 timeframe is, what do we need to do take pipeline safety to the next level? We saw improvements after Bellingham, but they started to plateau in the late 2000s,” Denton says. “We had to do more to get to the next level.”
These discussions led to the formation of the Pipeline Safety Excellence Steering Committee (PSE SC), which was focused on developing a more strategic approach to eliminating pipeline safety incidents throughout the industry. Denton says the airline industry’s efforts to improve safety in the 1990s provided one blueprint for the pipeline industry, particularly around sharing information and creating an industry-wide culture of safety.
“Something like that takes time,” Denton says. “It’s hard enough to think about changing the culture of a company, but thinking about changing the culture of the industry is a whole new challenge. I think we’ve come a long way, with companies buying into that culture. Pipeline companies didn’t know what pipeline safety management systems were, but now we do and we’re implementing them. Now, we have to talk about taking it to the next level, and that is about continuous improvement.”
Denton says that continuous improvement involves collaboration between companies and sharing information on pipeline safety, as well as making sure companies pass information along internally.
Within Phillips 66, Denton has been involved with the company’s commitment to cutting-edge research and development to improve pipeline safety for the entire industry, Murk says. Through a partnership with the PRCI Technology Development Center, the company has helped create a pipe defect repository where experts are invited to inspect defective pipe segments with 3-D imaging and other advanced technologies, which contribute to a more accurate understanding of pipeline risks and long-term safety solutions.
In the fall of 2020, Phillips 66 also participated in the first liquid pipeline safety culture survey alongside seven other operators, measuring attitudes towards safety throughout the company, Murk says. The company also intends to participate in the API Pipeline Safety Management Systems Third-Party Assessment later in 2021 to measure Phillips 66’s maturity in implementing Pipeline SMS.
Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic created myriad obstacles for the pipeline industry. Despite these challenges, Phillips 66 had zero Tier 1 pipeline system releases, zero recordable employee injuries and zero significant vehicle accidents.
Denton is also one of five executives that represent the pipeline industry on PHMSA’s Liquid Pipeline Advisory Committee (LPAC), which advises PHMSA on its rulemakings, specifically in relation to pipeline safety regulations. In 2020, he helped the LPAC reach a near unanimous vote in support of finalizing a key regulation on valve installation and rupture detection.
Denton also participates on a 24-member task group developing a first-of-its-kind API standard on pipeline public engagement. The new recommended practice, RP 1185, will provide a framework for pipeline operators including leading practices and approaches for advancing more effective engagement with key stakeholders, governments and the public during the entire life cycle of the pipeline. The first edition of RP 1185 is expected out in early 2022.
“The expectations of the public get higher each year,” Denton explains. “We have to respond to that. I think our own expectations are to find even more solutions to continue our journey to zero incidents.”
Bradley Kramer is managing editor of North American Oil & Gas Pipelines. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.