Niel Rootare: Envisioning the Possible

In Episode 3 of the Oil and Gas Elevate Podcast, hosts Sean McCoy and Eric Johnson interviewed Niel Rootare, CEO of Silver Wolf Midstream, on how the new company is repurposing the Michigan Express Pipeline to transport propane to the Michigan upper peninsula. In this article, OGGN contributing writer Stephen Forrester got a chance to talk with Niel about his vision for the project, his thoughts on how those with an entrepreneurial spirit wanting to make a difference should follow their passions, and his plans for the future.

When we sat down for lunch on a balmy autumn day—which, I’d add, isn’t an oxymoron when you live in Houston, TX—the first thing that I felt from Niel Rootare, CEO of Silver Wolf Midstream, was overwhelming charisma. He offered a quick smile and a strong handshake. A serious conversation gave way to sharing stories, exploring the challenges of working in the oil and gas industry in the era of COVID-19 and a bitterly polarized political climate. How do we overcome these difficulties and, in Niel’s case, do something that can potentially change the world for the better?

Challenges have always been an accepted and welcomed part of Niel’s career. After receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics from Eastern Michigan University, his first job was working on Wall Street in investment banking. It was during this time that Neil realized his passion was creation—how do you build up something from an idea into a profitable enterprise? How can we, in our professional journeys, do more than the expected? Niel held a series of roles in energy industry leadership, including as a VP of Business Development of E2 Energy Services and Director of Midstream Business Development for DTE Midstream, before he decided to found Silver Wolf Midstream.

Advice Niel gives to those who ask him how to achieve similar success: Be your own advocate, and be bold and fearless in pursuit of what you want. No one is going to do it for you.

High commodity prices in 2007 and 2008 prompted Niel to explore ways to help more effectively move products around, which he did by building small connecting lines to oil and gas companies. Thereafter, he would market their supply to alleviate some of the logistical burden giant corporations faced with complicated transport issues. Silver Wolf Midstream is a different kind of energy company, one founded on that same principle of doing something better. With that in mind, Niel saw an opportunity to repurpose an existing NGL pipeline, the Michigan Express Pipeline, for use in transporting propane.

This map shows the path that the Michigan Express Pipeline follows northwest from the Marysville plant to the Kalkaska plant.

When we talk about “clean energy,” there’s often a tendency to fall into the wind/solar conversation. This discounts the role that sustainable, safe infrastructure elements play in reducing environmental harm throughout the energy supply chain. With Silver Wolf Midstream, Niel saw two opportunities. First, he saw a way to deliver clean energy and renewable resources in a way that reduces our environmental footprint by reimagining and repurposing existing energy infrastructure. Second, he saw a viable business opportunity, a commercially sound solution that could provide value to shareholders while driving a positive impact in the world.

When envisioning what Silver Wolf Midstream would do, Niel wanted to ensure was that the project was low risk from an HSE and investment perspective and highly reliable for distributors. To accomplish these goals, Niel decided that propane transportation with the to-be-repurposed Michigan Express Pipeline was the way to go.

Built in 1973 by Shell, the pipeline’s perfect safety record and legacy of operational excellence—which Niel aims to maintain through state-of-the-art inspection and maintenance procedures—were clear indicators of what was to come when it was repurposed. Environmentally, the benefit is clear right from the get-go: no costly, complicated construction and all the associated damage during development.

The 225-mile pipeline runs from the state’s largest propane storage facility in Marysville to its terminal in Kalkasa, addressing the high demand for critical propane delivery infrastructure in central and northern Michigan. The pipeline also eliminates the need for propane suppliers to turn to out-of-state markets, which typically necessitates long-distance product transport via truck or rail. Think, if you will, about reducing the mileage driven by giant 18-wheelers by thousands of miles—there will certainly be a massive decrease in emissions, but also lowered diesel usage and damage to roads from the 40-ton behemoths making their way through state highways. There will be fewer drivers on the road and less risk transporting the propane long distances once the pipeline comes online, and with another source, available supply increases and consumers have more options. Enbridge argues that there is no need to rely on anything other than its long-serving pipeline, Line 5, to get propane to the Michigan upper peninsula; Niel says otherwise.

Without expanding on the reasons for Niel’s passion for this project ad infinitum, I think something worth mentioning is his love of community. For Niel, “community relations” or “governance” isn’t a box to be checked on a quarterly report with an offhand mention of a monetary donation; he wants to make a difference, and a big one. One thing he envisions is planting trees in underserved neighborhoods in Detroit, a dream based on the knowledge that community beautification/revitalization projects can dramatically impact property values and citizen quality of life. Look at the difference, Niel argues, between the affluent and less-so neighborhoods in urban metropolises; a staggering realization is that the former lacks trees. Voicu and Been even noted, through a comprehensive research project, that public gardens have a positive impact on surrounding property values.[1]

While Niel doesn’t know how it will all work yet, his intentions are some of the most genuine and pure that I’ve come across—he wants to drive long-term change. This isn’t a one-time check, vanishing into the void; it’s a 10- to 20-year project.

There’s absolutely a future in pipeline repurposing; in fact, this isn’t new, though the projects have varied in their scope and ambition over the past several years. E.ON, for example, last year announced plans to repurpose a natural gas pipeline in Germany for green hydrogen transport. That’s an entirely different conversation, but my takeaway from my conversation with Niel was that amazing things are coming our way. I’d have you end thinking about this: Niel successfully founded and secured funding for Silver Wolf Midstream during an ongoing global pandemic in a sector that’s facing intense investor scrutiny as companies fail to produce acceptable financial returns. If that doesn’t give you confidence in the future of this enterprise, I don’t know what will.

This article was written by Stephen Forrester.


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