A forward thinking review of safety and environmental measures can play its part in extending the life of ageing assets.
By Kevin Kinsella and Jye Yng Voon
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), around 70% of the world’s oil is currently being produced from mature fields. Many of the production facilities operating in these fields, including offshore platforms, have exceeded their original lifespan and there is growing pressure on operators to ensure that safety and environmental protection remains fit for purpose.
The issue of ageing assets is not going to go away. Not only do mature fields make a significant contribution to global oil and gas production but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the life of these fields will continue to be extended thanks both to the high price of oil and the spate of advanced technologies that are playing their part in Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR).
Changing safety parameters
With technologies for EOR continuing to multiply, the safety parameters of a production facility can change – sometimes significantly. A key challenge is to ensure that safety controls and management are still “suitable and sufficient” in the wake of engineering or organizational changes that have an impact on the way a facility operates.
In many ways the global oil and gas industry is heading toward a ‘perfect storm’. Many assets that were originally designed to last 25 years have now passed that milestone and in some cases lifespans of as much as 50-70 years are being forecast. Others, nearing their end of life, are pushing back decommissioning year on year, performing increasing numbers of well interventions to keep production flowing or tying back smaller local fields. As production levels fall, operational budgets come under pressure and maintenance tasks can get delayed. At the same time, severe weather conditions for offshore installations are becoming less predictable and loadings on degraded primary structures are increasing. For some floating structures, extreme storm loadings are being seen more frequently than expected at a time when mooring lines haven’t been inspected for 25 years or more.
Getting the balance right
For many installations, the level of production and cost of operation and maintenance is a fine balance. These assets, with marginal levels of production, are often divested and acquired by operators who need to cut costs and may have inherited a workforce who have become considerably demotivated by the divestment process. Other factors to consider include an inexperienced workforce, a deterioration in living conditions on the facility and a significant back-log of inspection and maintenance tasks as budgets are squeezed during the divestment process.
The overall culture of safety on the installation may be significantly impacted as a result, and the safety critical systems, with performance standards set when the installation was first commissioned, may have degraded.
In regions where there is a strong regulator and safety culture, actions are readily identified to address specific areas of concern where there is evidence of a system’s deterioration. However, the level of work required to address ageing asset issues is increasing rapidly. At the same time, the pressure on government agencies to maintain or cut budgets in the current economic climate can make the regulator’s job increasingly difficult.
Safety case culture
But it is not all bad news. Industry awareness with regard to major accident hazards has increased significantly in recent years. Incidents such as Deep Water Horizon have had a direct impact on regulatory thinking in different parts of the world, the onus being increasingly on operators to demonstrate that they are managing the major risks that impact on a particular facility.
Initiatives such as the EU Directive on Offshore Safety will require operators to develop Offshore Safety Cases in which all major accident hazards are fully assessed. It is expected that the US and certain other jurisdictions will adopt a similar approach.
Programmes to specifically address life extension are also being introduced. One such is being run by the UK Health & Safety Executive which aims to raise awareness of the potential consequences of ageing assets and life extension. This presents findings from many offshore inspections, highlighting key issues and providing feedback on what is found to work well in terms of ageing and life extension management.
It’s all in the planning
One of the key aspects of effective asset life extension management is planning. Appropriate inspections, well planned maintenance, plans for the timely purchase of spares, forward planning for equipment obsolescence and failure trend analysis for future repairs and replacements are all crucial. Planning ahead should also cover such aspects as organizational integrity – ensuring that people, processes and equipment are properly aligned, and, critically, that the workforce is the right size and has the right level of competence for the tasks in hand. For many installations there will need to be more than one plan, depending on a range of future development options.
Identifying and prioritizing key risks and safeguards relating to a mature asset is therefore essential. Updating previous studies is a good way of not only identifying issues and changes, but also refreshing and enhancing the knowledge and understanding of the workforce. The use of HAZID, HAZOP, risk assessment and bow-tie studies are an excellent way of engaging the workforce and demonstrating the linkage between hazards, risks and process safety controls, and the role of an individual on the platform in assuring performance. This, coupled with human factors and safety culture assessments enables the operator to ensure that the resources and competencies are sufficient and suitably aligned to perform the tasks needed.
According to the IEA, boosting oil recovery could unlock 300 billion barrels of oil, a statistic which is undoubtedly fuelling the development of new advanced technologies for oil recovery. Inevitably this will continue to extend the life of existing assets around the world – a promising outlook for the industry but one which requires that the safety and environmental protection of assets remain a priority.
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