BY EVA KAPLAN-LEISERSON
It was the largest advocacy campaign on a single issue in remembered NSPE history. More than 100 members joined their voices together in August—individually, in pairs, and in small groups. They educated federal legislators and staffers about the need for professional engineering licensure to protect the public, and they pushed for passage of a federal bill that would do just that.
The NSPE-driven campaign sent members to district offices and the phones, advocating for a bill that would require PE oversight of utility pipelines following the 2018 Merrimack Valley, Massachusetts, gas line explosion.
The Society designed the campaign to coincide with the fourth annual Professional Engineers Day on August 7. “What we have turned loose is the enthusiasm and abilities of…professional engineers on the day that’s special to them,” says Committee on Policy and Advocacy Immediate Past Chair Dan Wittliff, P.E., F.NSPE.
Also timed during the Congressional recess so meetings could occur in local offices, the advocacy effort enabled PEs to meet with legislators and staffers as their constituents.
According to NSPE’s Manager of Government Relations and Advocacy Stephanie Hamilton, most staffers and members of Congress don’t have a good understanding of professional engineering licensure—how it works and why it’s valuable.
NSPE members aimed to address that, while making a specific request: protection and passage of the Leonel Rondon Pipeline Safety Act (H.R. 2139, S. 1097), named after the teenager killed in Massachusetts last year.
The legislation would require a PE to approve “covered tasks,” defined as any operations and maintenance task performed on a pipeline facility that affects the operation or integrity of the pipeline.
The bills were authored by Massachusetts legislators, Rep. Lori Trahan (D) and Sen. Ed Markey (D) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D), following recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB found over-pressurized gas pipelines caused Rondon’s death and injuries to more than a dozen others. A professional engineer was not required to review or approve construction plans for the pipeline.
NSPE played a critical role in the board’s work, providing input about the importance of licensure for all engineers in responsible charge of engineering that potentially affects the public health, safety, and welfare.
As a result, the NTSB called for an immediate end to the licensing exemption in Massachusetts for gas industry work that poses a potential risk to public safety. The governor signed emergency legislation to that effect at the end of the year.
Currently, 51 states and territories permit some type of licensing exemption, with 14 allowing them for public utilities.
In June, NSPE advocated for passage of the Leonel Rondon Pipeline Safety Act in comments submitted to the House Energy Subcommittee. As then NSPE President Michael Aitken, P.E., F.NSPE, wrote, the public rarely has the option to choose its public utility providers. “Consequently, no market-based mechanism exists to compel companies towards improved safety, even after a deadly incident like the one in Merrimack Valley,” Aitken stated. “The responsibility, therefore, falls to Congress and regulatory bodies to ensure that safety is paramount.”
A Bill With Teeth
In the week before the advocacy campaign, the Senate version of the Leonel Rondon legislation was added as an amendment to a larger pipeline safety bill (S. 2299), which would allow covered task approval by any “relevant qualified personnel” and not just licensed PEs (see article).
As Hamilton says, the Society was “disappointed” and “dismayed” at the watering down of the language since it had been a direct result of NTSB’s recommendations. “This is a federal investigative body that came to the conclusion that having a PE would’ve created a layer of safety and could have possibly prevented this tragedy,” she says.
In preparing the PE Day advocates, NSPE staff (Hamilton and Policy and Advocacy Associate Margaret Edwards) asked them to speak to protection of the original language in the House bill and reinstatement of the language in the Senate bill. Simply put, removing the PE requirement does not require pipeline operators to behave any differently than they do now or meet a standard of having an ethical obligation to protect the public.
Or, as Hamilton says, “If we’re going to pass a bill, let’s pass a bill that has some teeth.”
‘A Collective High-Five’
Thankfully, the advocacy day itself did not disappoint. Hamilton describes it as “a strong success,” saying “I wish I could give [everyone] a collective high-five.”
She and Edwards note members’ enthusiasm and express gratitude for everyone who took time out of their busy schedules to participate.
NSPE’s work began well in advance of PE Day—first in promoting registration for the advocacy campaign and then in matching volunteers with their legislators and closest in-district offices to schedule meetings.
NSPE staff also contacted state societies to determine their desired level of participation, which ranged from arranging meetings to offering assistance as needed.
In addition, NSPE organized a training webinar on being a successful advocate. It highlighted the importance of in-person meetings (noted in a recent survey as a top influencing factor for Congress members); highlighted best practices (be prepared, focused, and goal-directed); and discussed the keys to successful follow up (send a thank-you email, answer remaining questions, stay connected).
As the event approached, the advocacy team created an information packet for each participant, including meeting schedules, bill summaries, talking points, legislator information sheets, and leave-behind materials.
All that groundwork was key, say NSPE members who participated. Laura Friello, P.E., a project manager for Garver in Texas, had not previously joined a legislative effort like this—but getting more involved with local politics was on her 2019 to-do list. She met first with field representatives for Rep. Bill Flores (R-TX) on her own and then, with NSPE Vice President Rick Guerra, P.E., F.NSPE, with regional representatives for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX).
Friello admits to being a little nervous beforehand, but says the provided materials and webinar proved useful since she doesn’t have experience with utility pipelines. Without that preparation, she says, she would’ve been “less confident in those situations for sure.”
Her advice for others who may also be nervous about taking part in advocacy: realize that although you’re representing PEs and NSPE, you’re also a constituent from whom legislators want to hear.
And Friello says she’d repeat the experience. “The more that we show up as engineers, the more they will realize we’re a great resource they can tap into,” she says. “That alone makes me want to do it again.”
José Noriega, P.E., from Lake Worth, Florida, was also participating in this type of advocacy for the first time. As director of engineering for consulting firm Webster Technology Services, his experience is in computers and electronics. But he sees a lack of a professional engineering culture in industry. He feels a responsibility to help, so that decisions are based on safety versus business factors.
Noriega acknowledges that legislators have a lot on their minds, but recalls the adage about squeaky wheels and grease. “Who is going to be doing the squeaking?” he asks. “We better get ourselves into the conversation.”
In signing up for the PE Day advocacy event, Noriega aimed to make legislators aware of the value of the professional engineering license. His meetings were with representatives for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), and with Rep. Lois Frankel (D-FL) and her district chief of staff.
In his meetings, the PE perceived a lack of understanding about the differences between licensed and unlicensed engineers, as well as the implications of practicing engineering under the licensing exemption. But he left feeling that doors were open for future visits with the staffers. In addition, he says that Rep. Frankel, while under a tight agenda in her 15-minute meeting, was very attentive.
When NSPE Vice President Rick Guerra found out about the advocacy day, he “couldn’t wait” to be part of it. He’s seen the importance of advocacy as part of the Society’s board of directors as well as in leadership positions with TSPE. Guerra has participated in the Texas Society’s PE Day at the Capitol multiple times, meeting with his state legislators.
He calls this campaign’s tie to PE Day “fantastic,” because “it allowed us to introduce ourselves as licensed PEs, here celebrating PE Day, and, by the way, we wanted to talk about this particular bill.”
Guerra and Friello’s conversations with regional representatives for Senators Cruz and Cornyn were successful. He reports that staff were attentive, listened, and asked good questions. “I believe they heard our message very clearly.”
Guerra hopes that this is just the beginning of similar activities for NSPE and its members. “Now that people have seen how easy and effective it is,” he says, “we will hopefully get a lot more activity of this kind in the future.”
Ultimately, the goal is to build relationships with elected officials and staffers, Hamilton says, so that they reach out to NSPE members as subject-matter experts on licensure and their fields. She calls the advocacy day a “positive first step.”
NSPE President-Elect Tricia Hatley, P.E., F.NSPE, and four other professional engineers met the field representative for Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK). The PEs offered to provide help with any technical issues that may arise for the senator. “He was appreciative to have the contact and resource,” Hatley says.
The Freese and Nichols vice president notes that initially the staffer was concerned about additional oversight and regulation, which Inhofe opposes. “Once he understood more about the issue and that PEs are utilized in all public utility areas for states, cities, and counties, he got on board and thought the senator would be supportive,” she explains.
Brad Shores, P.E., assistant vice president at professional services firm WSP USA, met with representatives for Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS). “This was an opportunity to further meaningful relationships, to educate critical decision makers on the importance and function of professional licensure in general, and to advocate for the welfare and safety of the public with a meaningful piece of legislation,” he says. “Why wouldn’t you want to participate?”
In his meetings, Shores emphasized the license as “the vehicle we entrust to deliver public safety, whether it be in skyscrapers or wastewater treatment plants.” He also emphasized the need for the pipeline safety bill and the fact that the NTSB “believes this is the best path forward to protect the public.”
Shores reports that the discussions were cordial, and the staffers were receptive and wanted to understand the issues. “We felt that we had communicated our objectives and were told this would be ‘pushed up the ladder,’” he says.
Although he had never entered a US senator’s office before, he says the process helped him realize their accessibility. “Engineers should not be intimidated, but be ready and willing to advocate for our noble profession,” he says.
Leanne Panduren, P.E., F.NSPE, the CEO and president of Rowe Professional Services Company in Flint, Michigan, also emphasizes the importance of developing relationships. The past chair of a design professionals’ legislative and governmental advocacy group that includes the Michigan Society, she has participated in state advocacy for more than a decade. In addition, she has represented NSPE in visits to Capitol Hill.
Legislative meetings aren’t about pushing an agenda, she says, which people may be reluctant to do. You’re there to forge a relationship as a trusted advisor.
That way, Panduren says, legislators will come to PEs in the beginning as they’re developing legislation rather than trying to get their help in fixing bad bills. “They’re going to call you before they even talk about the legislation because they trust you.”
Although people may say they don’t like politics, she says, “we all have to realize that it’s a reality. If we don’t try to work in it and make it better, then we don’t have a right to…complain how it’s operating.”
Panduren believes it’s especially important that PEs stay engaged with local, state, and national legislators because there are so few engineers and scientists within those legislative bodies. “So much of what we work on…is so highly technical that we cannot have people legislating or making decisions in those areas without having our feedback and input,” she says.
On PE Day, Panduren met in-person with a regional director for Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) and participated via conference call in a larger group meeting with the regional manager for Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI). She reports the discussions went very well, and that the staffers are providing the information to both their counterparts in the Washington, DC, offices and to the staffers working specifically in the energy sector.
What’s the Cost?
Although some argue that requiring professional engineers to oversee utility pipelines could increase costs, Dan Wittliff counters, “What’s the cost of not doing that?”
He points to the 1937 explosion caused by a gas leak in New London, Texas, which killed more than 300 people—many of them children. The incident was attributed to faulty engineering performed by unqualified individuals. Texas’s licensing law was enacted later that year.
“Unfortunately, that seems to be the way things go in our country,” says Wittliff. “No one wants to respond unless there’s a disaster.”
NSPE and its members are working hard to change that. Hamilton points out that although PE Day has passed, opportunities for advocacy continue. The pipeline safety legislation is going to be active until Congress adjourns in 2020, she notes. Calls and meetings are still critical.
Anyone who couldn’t participate on PE Day but would like to meet in-district with their legislators’ staff members are welcome to contact Hamilton.
She hopes the PE Day advocacy effort will be just the beginning of creating a new advocacy culture among NSPE members. As threats to licensure proliferate, she explains, “it’s important for people who are licensed to advocate for their own profession to the people who are representing them.”
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