'Sometimes I have to pinch myself:' Essential Houston energy workers put in lonely hours

Thu, April 09, 2020

Original article - Sergio Chapa | Houston Chronicle


Lee McKelvey’s first day on the job was also the last time he saw nearly all of his coworkers.

The 29-year-old Navy veteran and former Houston Ship Channel dock worker started a new job March 12 as a master control operator at EVX Midstream, the largest operator of wastewater pipelines in the Eagle Ford Shale of South Texas. It was a routine first day filled with paperwork, shaking hands, learning new names and figuring out where the printers, bathrooms and break room are.

Then an email from management arrived.

The afternoon note alerted employees that until further notice, they would work from home to protect them from the coronavirus, which at the time had infected just 1,600 people nationwide. The order was for nonessential workers, however, and McKelvey was among those needed to maintain the federally designated “critical infrastructure” of the energy industry.

“It went from about 60 people to about five people just that fast,” McKelvey said.

In the following days, as the outbreak grew exponentially, McKelvey and the other master control room operators found themselves among the few people still working in towers emptied by work-from-home orders, making downtown Houston feel more like a ghost town than the heart of the fourth largest city in the United States.

But at EVX, the precautions went a step further. To enforce social distancing, there would be only one operator in the control room on rotating 12-hour shifts. The three veteran master control operators gave McKelvey a crash course in monitoring the company’s pipelines, saltwater disposal wells and other field equipment. But they couldn’t prepare him for the feeling of isolation over the days that followed.

Each workday, McKelvey leaves the his wife, son and daughter and begins a commute from Humble that takes half the time it did on his first day. He arrives to an empty garage at the 811 Louisiana Tower, where he can park his truck almost anywhere he wants. Inside, he greets the security guard in the lobby and the cleaning staff, often the only other people in the building, and takes a lonely elevator ride to the 25th floor.

There, McKelvey enters a dark, empty office. He takes a large bottle from the front desk and squirts hand sanitizer into his palms before walking a darkened hall, past cubicles and offices left in disarray by workers who departed weeks ago with computers and personal belongings.

The master control room, already dimly lit, isn’t made much brighter by the glow of 16 computer screens and two flat-screen TVs. One shows cable news while the other can be switched to Netflix, Hulu or other streaming services. After a quick debriefing from the previous shift, McKelvey settles into a day filled with alerts and notifications from the company’s field operations.

When he needs to step away from the screens, McKelvey goes down the hall to the lonely break room, grabs a drink and looks out the windows to survey an empty city. Most of the shops and restaurants in downtown Houston are closed, including those in the city’s underground tunnels. Road construction crews still work on projects here and there, but otherwise McKelvey sees very few people downtown — which by comparison seemed remarkably busy during his first day on the job.

At the end of his shift, McKelvey returns to the company of his family, having encountered on most days fewer than a handful of people.

“Sometimes I have to pinch myself,” McKelvey said. “I go to the windows and look out and see the downtown that I grew up around look so empty. It really is kind of lonely.”

EVX isn’t the only pipeline company whose master control operators are working in unusual conditions during a global pandemic that has infected 1.4 million and killed nearly 80,000.

Like other workers around the globe performing vital tasks, the operators are helping to keep the power on while millions are working from home, says Alex Oehler, interim president and CEO of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America.

“There’s an incredible sense of service, a sense of purpose, a sense of dedication and a get-it-done attitude,” Oehler said. “You’re seeing all that in spades right now.”

Houston liquefied natural gas company Cheniere Energy owns and operates more than 300 miles of pipeline and two LNG export terminals that must be constantly monitored. The company’s cargoes need to be sent to destinations around the world despite the growing pandemic.

Cheniere has a master control center at its downtown headquarters and a backup at an undisclosed location. Although most of its other office workers are telecommuting during the crisis, master control operators still come to work. Shifts haven’t changed and the same number of operators are still required but they are now practicing social distancing and have access to hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and other safety gear.

The company’s goal is to maintain safe and uninterrupted operations, said Cheniere spokeswoman Jenna Palfrey.

Canadian pipeline operator TC Energy takes advantage of having multiple control centers to keep tabs on its more than 60,000 miles of crude oil and natural gas pipelines across the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The company, which has a large regional office among the towers in downtown Houston, has two master control centers and three backup sites at undisclosed locations. Operating under normal shifts, six operators work in the control rooms at any given time while managers, supervisors and engineers do so remotely.

The control rooms are large enough to allow people to sit 12 feet apart, but TC Energy went further and opened its three backup sites to allow for even greater social distancing. As an additional safety measure, the three backup centers are operating with a completely sequestered staff.

“The gas controllers are a special group of employees with highly specialized skills, which means not anyone can do their job. So it is imperative that we take extraordinary actions to keep them healthy and safe,” said Millie Moran, vice president of TC Energy’s U.S. natural gas pipeline control centers.

The company had to plan for all aspects of life, she said. It provides comfortable lodging, meals, snacks and anything they need “to give them the creature comforts of home,” Moran said.

Oklahoma pipeline operator Williams has one of its master control rooms at its regional headquarters inside the 64-story Williams Tower in the Galleria area, equally desolate after the Galleria mall and area stores closed and the numerous offices were vacated in favor of telecommuting.

The pandemic hasn’t affected the number of master control operators in the office or their schedules, but the company is limiting the presence of other employees in buildings with control rooms. Temporary work stations allow master control operators to sit in separate rooms and increase social distancing.

The company, which handles 30 percent of the natural gas consumed in the U.S., must maintain service through its system of pipelines, says Williams Vice President of Operations Dave Keylor.

“With the COVID situation we’re able to remain in place but we’re increasing social distancing and hygiene procedures,” Keylor said.