The Importance of Effective Communication
July 28, 2020
By Ashley Taylor
This article was originally published in Currents, POWER’s quarterly Environmental newsletter.
We all know the saying “communication is key,” and understand that success depends on effective communication.
Whether it’s critical project details or potential compliance issues, miscommunication can lead to unnecessary challenges, violations and, in a worst-case scenario, penalties.
As an environmental specialist, I spend much of my time assessing and documenting compliance for environmental permits and regulations for natural gas pipeline projects.
Over the course of my career, I’ve experienced several situations where a lack of communication caused costly delays, so I’m sharing lessons I’ve learned along the way to avoid communication missteps.
My first communication lesson occurred when I was trying to submit multiple water and blasting permits for a pipeline construction project. The construction crew requested the submittal be done as soon as possible, so I promptly notified the appropriate personnel of the information needed.
As the information started to come in, however, I quickly realized there were too many people involved. I received conflicting answers from the construction team, resulting in confusion and multiple days of back-and-forth communication to confirm the correct information.
It became clear that, although everyone was trying to be helpful and provide the needed information quickly, the process would have been much smoother and faster with one established point of contact.
My second communication lesson came after an incident occurred on a pipeline project that caused extensive damage to the area and required extensive restoration work. The event attracted the ongoing attention of federal and state agencies as well as a concerned public.
Restoring the area required coordinated efforts from environmental, construction, engineering and land groups. Multiple times the engineering and construction teams proposed changes that hadn’t been communicated with the land and environmental groups for input, and what should have taken a few weeks ended up taking several months.
In hindsight, providing a written list of items for design consideration would have streamlined the communication flow across the disciplines and reduced the time for a meaningful plan.
Finally, my third communication lesson arose after a serious violation was narrowly avoided on a project regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). To provide some background, project changes or modifications outside of previously-approved work areas require that a variance request be submitted to FERC.
On one project, as we approached the end of pipeline construction and were in the process of restoring the right-of-way, most of the team involved with submitting FERC variances had moved on to new projects except for the head land agent and me. We were now managing a new team to see out the project’s conclusion.
One day, I received a request for a variance to retrieve material that had fallen outside our approved limits of disturbance. This was a fairly simple and straightforward request as there were no environmental issues involved. The client agreed the variance was needed, and the only pending item was to obtain landowner approval.
Shortly after the variance request was received, I got an email from an inspector stating landowner approval had been received and that I should submit the variance immediately because construction crews were nearing the work area. Although I was unsure if we, in fact, had received landowner approval, the inspector said the field land agent confirmed the permission had been received.
After submitting the variance to our FERC third-party Compliance Project Manager (CPM) for approval, I realized I still had a nagging feeling about the situation and called the lead land agent directly. Sure enough, the landowner permission mentioned by the inspector was for a different variance, not for our submittal.
I immediately called our CPM and told her to hold approval for our variance because landowner approval had not been obtained. We were able to get back on track and avoid further problems.
Shortly after this incident, I held a call with the team to review the approval process and the importance of following protocols to avoid miscommunications, especially those that might lead to serious violations.
We learn from experiences that go wrong (or nearly go wrong), making improvements based on those lessons. The most important lesson I’ve learned over the course of my career is to take the time necessary to make sure everyone has the same information. Consider communicating not only what is needed, but why it’s needed.
In my job, I do not see or understand everything that goes on behind the scenes for the engineering or construction teams. Often, they have information that, if I knew or understood, would make processes more efficient and allow for better collaboration and problem solving.
Working together and communicating needs will sometimes highlight blind spots, and in other circumstances may help avoid costly mistakes. It’s important to take the time upfront to make sure everyone has the information needed for a safe, efficient and compliant project.
About the Author:
Ashley is an Environmental Specialist with a demonstrated history of working in the environmental service industry. Her experience is focused in the areas of preparing National Environmental Policy Act and FERC-related reports, permitting, coordinating with various state and federal agencies and coordinating and preparing environmental compliance documentation and records primarily for the oil and gas industry. Got a question for Ashley? Send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.