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Identifying and Measuring Cultures of Safety in the Natural Gas industry adsa




11: Urban Studies and Planning

Faculty Supervisor:

Amy Glasmeier

Faculty email:


Apply by:

September 25, 2020


814 777 2814

Project Description

Our project draws from the history of U.S. natural gas use and regulation and the application of high-reliability organization (HRO) theory to analyze natural gas's safety, reliability, and viability as a transition fuel as we seek to reduce green house gas emissions. Our research studies the transition from coal and fuel oil to natural gas in the generation of electricity, home heating, and transportation technologies. We find that shifting between energy sources, such as oil to gas in electrical power generation, carries a burden of responsibility to absorb preexisting infrastructure and all its liability. We are interested in what factors predict high reliability behaviors in the natural gas sector. Transitioning the U.S. energy system across fossil fuel types requires a culture of safety shaped by an ethos of zero error tolerance when operating a legacy system whose original scale of purpose is now dramatically tested. Our contention is that transition planning requires a careful focus on organizations' culture, the structure and disarticulation of supply chains, and the fluidity of ownership in a greatly expanded industry reshaped by a massive increase in resource availability. Our current research demonstrates that energy systems are dynamic, chaotically configured, evolutionary across time, and susceptible to the accumulation of effects that portend future events. Transitioning between fuel substitutes requires accounting for differences in technologies, underlying physics, and the organizations' culture that assume a transformed and expanded role in the provision of energy supply. Our project will include conducting interviews with operators of powerplants and other gas transmission system elements to understand and document the culture of safety in the industry. We will explore practices of countries outside of the U.S. to identify cultures of safety embedded in the market and legislative interventions that produced current conditions. We will then apply the HRO theory to identify structural and organizational rationales for the theory's application to natural gas. Using this new understanding, we will interrogate whether U.S. natural gas utilities can even be considered high-reliability organizations in the same way their energy peers (e.g., nuclear) can. This work contributes to a CRISP NSF grant on interdisciplinary research in engineering and social sciences. We expect to apply AI and machine learning as part of our data acquisition. Students will learn qualitative and quantitative research skills in the social sciences.


Interest in the global energy system; knowledge of or interest in learning about text analysis using computer assistance; willingness to conduct interviews with members of industry, government, and society. Modeling of performance measures and developing protocols for error determination.