Friday, June 4, 2010

How the Gulf Oil Spill Affects Process Automation, Safety, and Asset Management

ARC is not in a position to pass judgment on or assign blame for the tragic loss of life and environmental disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. From our perspective, the primary questions that need to be answered now are, "What can we learn from this mishap?" and "How can the industry prevent a reoccurrence of this type of event?" We believe that the answers to both questions involve improved process safety procedures and the intelligent application of automation, asset management, and improved testing, operations and maintenance practices. The regulatory backlash already begun in the wake of this disaster will bring these and other issues to the forefront in the coming months.

The Regulatory Environment Has Already Changed

The regulatory environment has already changed in the wake of the oil spill. President Obama suspended deepwater oil drilling permits for at least the next six months and has ordered a halt to drilling off the Alaska coast. Leases issued to companies exploring for oil in the Gulf of Mexico and the coast of Virginia have been halted. The Minerals Management Service is already being overhauled, and the director, Liz Birnbaum, forced to resign after less than a year on the job. US Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, has already stated that wells not covered under the moratorium, "…will require certification of all blowout preventers, stronger procedures for keeping wells under control, a tougher inspection process, and expanded safety and training requirements for rig workers."

Offshore Exploration and Production Will Not Cease

The reality is that, our society is still highly dependent on hydrocarbons. As much as some would like to break this "oil habit," there seems to be no ready alternative. Hence, for the immediate future at least, we must continue exploring for and producing oil in increasingly remote and challenging environments to meet the world's huge appetite for energy.

Increased Adoption of Process Safety

Unfortunately, the Deepwater Horizon disaster is just one of many incidents in recent years in process plants and other industrial facilities that have cost many lives and have left environmental damage in their wake. Many of these incidents might have been prevented by appropriate application of a modern process safety system incorporating both safety instrumented system (SIS) technology and intelligent devices with remote diagnostics capabilities. The technology exists today to provide advanced, online diagnostics for everything from control valves to pressure transmitters, machinery, and even blowout preventers.

Market growth for process safety systems already exceeds growth in basic process control systems (BPCSs). On top of the many other highly publicized incidents in the process industries, the Deepwater Horizon incident could result in even more broad, sweeping regulatory pressures that could affect all process industries, not just offshore oil & gas.

The Role of Procedural Automation

Major plant incidents are usually the result of a confluence of factors, all converging at the same time to create an environment outside of the normal pre-operations testing environment. Most recent incidents in the process industries have some sort of procedural element associated with them. Either proper procedures were not followed, or no standard operating procedure was defined for the operator or maintenance person to follow. Many procedures in the process industries tend to be manual or guided procedures. While there is a place for these, the process industries can benefit greatly from a drive to automate many critical procedures, such as startup and shutdown.

The need for a procedural automation standard increases as the workforce continues to lose the highly experienced personnel who under-stand these procedures and there is no meaningful way to capture that knowledge to guide future operator/maintenance actions properly to prevent incidents. With strong support from the process automation end user community, the ISA 106 standards committee was recently formed to address this issue.

Improved Maintenance Practices

Just as there are procedural elements to most process incidents, poor maintenance practices also typically play a part. Increasingly, better adherence to maintenance practices and higher standards for maintenance will be required. Plant asset management (PAM) systems, combined with intelligent field devices, can help facilitate a proactive maintenance strategy and can even reduce maintenance costs, while helping to improve safety by identifying problems before they become unmanageable or by avoiding unnecessary trips to the field. Maintenance work practices, however, must be modified to take maximum advantage of all that PAM has to offer and this change can be challenging to institute.

Safety Culture

None of these measures are sufficient, however, without implementing a good safety culture. Regulations can be imposed and technologies adopted, but without a high regard for safety in all facets of day-to-day operations and the mindset to make intelligent decisions, bad decisions will still be made, corners will still be cut, and accidents will continue to happen. As we've stated many times, a good safety culture must be disseminated from the highest levels of executive management on down. It requires constant vigilance and a certain set of corporate values that must be continuously monitored and maintained.

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