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Ageing plant and asset management in the oil and gas sector

14 December 2016

Reducing costs carries with it serious safety risks for the oil and gas sector, as even the most apparently insignificant shortcut on essential procedures can result in a serious disaster, as has been seen on numerous occasions. In this article, Simon Rooks of Tyco says safety control is one area of asset management where operators simply cannot afford to scale back.

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The oil and gas industry is undergoing a severe and prolonged period of shrinking. As a result, the industry is rapidly searching for ways to reduce expenditure and losses. Oil and Gas UK’s 2016 economic report indicated that following two years of severe cuts, the sector is now supporting around 120,000 fewer jobs than in 2014 - a reduction of more than a quarter. It also reported that spending has dropped 30% on 2014 levels.

Prioritising asset safety management

In light of this, it is clear that safety management on platforms must remain a priority, particularly given that the majority of active oil and gas assets are running beyond their safe life expectancy, with some at least 40 years old and many older than 30. In fact, the latest table released by the Oil and Gas Authority in November 2015 shows that the average age of current manned, operational installations on the UK Continental Shelf is over 28 years - old enough for safety systems to begin to weaken and corrode to a dangerous extent.

Unfortunately, effective protection against fire and explosions on older oil and gas assets is a large and expensive task, often requiring platform-wide remodelling. As a result, companies across the industry are having to look closely at their processes in an attempt to maintain essential fire and safety standards while simultaneously achieving a reduction in costs. For many, there is the risk that this will take the form either of an unhealthy reduction in resources - delaying service callouts, for example - or an attempt to strong-arm fire and safety suppliers into a cheaper deal, which will likely lead to a reduced service level.

Many organisations are relying on technology innovations to help protect their assets and extend the life of installations. Research into the oil and gas industry’s priorities up to 2025 by Lloyds Register Energy shows that the number one driver for investment in technical innovation will be safety improvements (45%). This tops both reducing costs (43%) and accessing new reserves (29%).  However, there is still resistance in the market to embracing innovations, and adoption rates across the industry must be improved to ensure safety remains paramount across operations.

Marine challenges

One key challenge in this regard comes as a result of the environment itself. Essential fire protection structures on offshore oil and gas installations face particularly hazardous conditions as a result of salt water’s corrosive qualities, the presence of clogging marine debris and damaging rough weather conditions, on top of the industry-wide danger of hydrocarbons and toxic gases on board.

A key example of this is firewater deluge systems, which are the primary source of offshore active fire protection on-board an installation. As a Safety and Environmental Critical Element (SECE), they should be fit for purpose around the clock and function on-demand, to as-built design criteria, in every instance in which they are called upon. However, nozzle blockages within deluge systems are a common occurrence, due to corrosion, marine growth, salt crystallisation and other by-products of seawater. These blockages have a serious impact on the functionality of the system and greatly increase the risk of a fire running out of control. Many have looked to solve this problem by changing out the material of the pipework within their deluge system to various elastomers, CuNiFer and even titanium. However, a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) report on the impact of blockages concluded that nozzle blockages will still occur within the pipework regardless of the material from which they are constructed.

Innovative safety procedure

Even apart from the potential impact of technology developments, maintenance regimes themselves also contribute to the issue. The majority of operators in the UK Continental Shelf currently employ wet testing to prove the compliance of their deluge system. This essentially means spraying tons of seawater through the pipework, causing the deposits and blockages described above. These blockages add a dangerous element of luck to the system’s ability to function fully on demand. There may be a second or third chance to pass a deluge test, but there is only one chance to suppress a fire.

As such, operators must consider innovative approaches, alternative service approaches and installation of anti-blocking devices to improve system reliability and resilience - dry testing of deluge systems, which can enable cost optimisation whilst maintaining compliance, without causing the run-of-the-mill damage which contributes to platform life-end. A dry-test regime enables the operator to reduce the frequency of corrosive seawater tests, reducing the likelihood of blockages and extending the operational life of deluge systems. Adopting this kind of innovative approach to routine protocols can make an enormous difference on the bottom line.

Resilience can also be significantly improved by installing innovative solutions to protect deluge discharge nozzles, to ensure all nozzles remain operational even if there is debris within the pipework. Coupled with environment-specific technology, this type of innovative service delivery method can save operators over 21% per year over the remaining life of the asset, whilst at the same time ensuring essential system resilience. Many organisations fear they will be faced with a hefty bill if they wish to update and maintain a fully-functional fire-prevention system. Today however, technology exists that can ensure system reliability and resilience can be met without costly infrastructure overhaul, for a tenth of the cost.

Looking forwards

The oil and gas industry is responsible for some of the most high-risk hazardous work environments on the planet. As a result, it is essential that operators prioritise the safety and upkeep of their assets. Innovative technologies and processes hold the key to achieving these aims whilst satisfying the bottom line - but it is up to individual policy-makers and stakeholders to move now. Fully functional deluge systems are a non-negotiable.


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