Preparing for shark attacks: being ready for oil and gas emergencies

James Rowley & Paul Hughes, Hydratight

Oil and gas pipeline integrity specialists must be aware of risks and tackle infrastructure problems that present a potential catastrophe.

Three times world surfing champion Mick Fanning made headlines around the world last month after he fended off a shark attack in South Africa’s Jeffreys Bay on live television.

As a professional surfer he would have understood the risk of attack but may not have expected to ever come face to face with a shark. No doubt his survival instinct kicked in.

While the region’s officials believe the risk of shark attack is low, plans are in place to introduce drones and lookout points for early warning evacuation systems.

As a global hot spot for surfing, officials will need to reassure visitors that the area is safe - their investment in drones is the equivalent of an insurance policy that they hope will help protect the town’s reputation as a top surfing destination.

Much like surfers, pipeline integrity specialists must be aware of risks and tackle infrastructure problems that present a potential environmental catastrophe and could result in the loss of supply following platform shutdowns.

Protecting pipeline integrity
Every pipeline asset is at risk of failure: corrosion, erosion, dropped objects, dragged anchors, damage during installation or eventual internal blockages caused by unforeseen hydrate formation. The probability of these is low, but the potential consequences if they do happen are huge.

Decision makers need to balance competing priorities. They must provide for the financial, operational and environmental health of the business today but also ensure these decisions make sense in the long term. In an industry with long lead times and where projects are years in the planning, understanding what will be required to protect assets throughout their lifetimes is essential.

Risk management involves planning ahead - providing appropriate contingencies that can be mobilised in the event of an incident. It would be commercially unviable to replace an entire pipeline if damage occurs, so it needs to be the responsibility of the owner and operator to have repair scenarios in place.

An Emergency Pipeline Repair System (EPRS) is a vital component of mitigating the risk of damage to pipelines.

Times have changed
EPRS has always been used as a type of insurance, like the drones spotting sharks. It is a protection against the risks of the unknown, where operators decide on an emergency repair procedure and retain the necessary tooling, equipment and services before a situation occurs. EPRS can then immediately react to unplanned repair, mininimizing the resultant damage to the environment and field operation.

Thirty years ago EPRS was considered ‘nice to have’ rather than essential, typically encompassing only long lead time products in the most cost effective manner. However, as the age of subsea assets increases, so does the associated risk. A much greater focus on mitigating production loss and lowering health, safety and environmental impact has driven the requirements of EPRS to be an essential strategy that is a core component of ensuring future business growth.

The technology deployed within offshore oil and gas fields is also constantly developing. To make the most of available fields, subsea assets are required to operate with increased efficiency and at higher temperatures and pressures. The well fluid composition can also change over the life of field, introducing issues such as the presence of carbon dioxide (CO2) and hydrogen sulphide (H2S). These can cause severe corrosion problems in oil and gas pipelines. In both the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea, corrosion has proved to be the most reported fault in pipelines, according to the PARLOC 2001/1/ report.

Technically smarter
As the requirement for production of oil and gas with higher concentrations of CO2 and H2S have increased, pipelines have been developed with more exotic materials such as corrosion resistant alloys (CRA) to mitigate corrosion. This has advantages, but the repair of these pipelines creates their own unique issues that cannot always be solved with traditional repair methods. EPRS systems are taking these changes into account, and an ongoing Joint Industry Project has developed and tested a proof of principle to address the main challenges - including the risk to the exposed pipe material with traditional repair methods. The Joint Industry Project is developing and testing a dual sealing mechanical connector with a bespoke graphite sealing system which will address the pipe sealing.

Working smarter
In an environment where operators are facing huge pressure to reduce and manage costs, EPRS can typically be the first victim of cost reduction. But there are ways to manage this. EPRS systems can be made available for other standard operations and maintenance. Using the systems in the normal course of operation will also provide assurance the components have been tried and tested.

Hydratight and others run an EPRS club membership where operators and asset owners can pay a low annual rate to have access to shared material and reserved machining capacity. If an emergency does occur, approved designs and stock material can be fast tracked through manufacture and testing to enable quick mobilization. Club membership is an attractive proposition for smaller operators or joint ventures to minimize costs while retaining a robust response.

Sharks may not attack in the Jeffreys bay region again. But officials need to be able to mobilize early warning systems regardless. Similarly the risk of pipeline failure may be small but operators need to have effective mitigation systems in place which enable a fast, safe and correct repair response to a pipelines failure. EPRS is an essential component for a modern oil and gas industry, and there are effective ways to minimize its cost. - James Rowley and Paul Hughes

Joint integrity specialist Hydratight has over 30 years’ experience as a leading provider of EPRS coverage. James Rowley and Paul Hughes work in Hydratight’s Global Subsea business.  

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